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Aeromedical mission brings healing touch to deployed AOR

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SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- Many doctors and nurses are referred to as "angels of mercy." For the aeromedical evacuation Airmen here who serve aboard a C-130 Hercules "flying hospital," they really do have wings.

On any given day, Airmen from the 379th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron provide support and medical care for patient movement. They also serve as a vital link in the total force aeromedical evacuation system in the current area of responsibility here.

Flight nurses and aeromedical technicians are among the AE crewmembers here who ensure safe and efficient care of the ill or injured service members and civilians throughout the area of operations in Southwest Asia. The team, consisting of two flight nurses and three AE technicians, is always on alert for patients who need to be picked up and moved.

"AE bridges the gap between the care in the field and the care provided once the patient gets to a hospital," said Tech. Sgt. Rachel Anderson, a 379th EAES aeromedical evacuation technician.

Upon alert, the crew will report to the squadron building, attend pre-mission briefings and secure their weapons. A briefing with the aircraft crew on the expectations and needs of the patients is accomplished on board, and then the AE crew prepares the equipment and supplies for the patients they will receive.

"After we are alerted, we get all our pre-mission duties done, we get the equipment and then configure it on the aircraft preparing it for the patients," said Maj. Brent Marquette, a 379th EAES flight nurse and the medical crew director. "When we're ready to receive our patients, it means we have all our emergency equipment ready and everything is good to go."

The aircraft has been reconfigured into a flying hospital complete with cardiac monitors, defibrillators, intubation devices, litters and supplies such as gauze and IV bags. The AE crew will load patients onboard the aircraft in a strategic order.

"When we load patients onto the C-130, we take several factors into consideration such as the location of their injuries and what kinds of treatments they may need during flight," Sergeant Anderson said.

A typical mission for the aircrew is to travel to a place in theater and transport patients to a higher echelon of care. The AE crew must thoroughly assess the patient's needs during handoff, to ensure that they are properly prepared for the flight.

"When a patient is handed off into my care, I check the vitals, the medications they're on, the tubes that I have to manage, and see if there are any other issues," said Capt. Kelly Allen, a 379th EAES flight nurse. "If there are psych patients, I will ensure they are all set for the flight. All of this is prior to take off."

The reason the AE crew is so critical to continuing patient care is that there can be certain complications in flight that do not arise while the patient is on the ground.

"There are a lot of stressors which impact patients in flight that do not occur on the ground," Major Marquette said. "When you get them up to altitude, there's less oxygen, the barometric pressure changes, and there are many other negative things that influence a patient's care. So, you must be aware of those stressors and risks to properly care for our patients."

The crew will look for certain "tells" to see if patients are experiencing any complications.

"Color is a significant indicator that something is wrong," the captain said. "Things like respiratory rate, vitals and their disposition all give clues to how the patient really is."

The AE team's main focus is to ease the suffering and pain of their patients.

"One thing you have to consider is that these men are used to pain," Captain Allen said. "So, we have to tell them it's okay to say they're in pain and let us treat them for it so their bodies can heal. Sometimes that means taking medication to take the pain away."

The patients who receive the caring touch of the flight nurses and AE technicians are grateful for the efforts that are made for them.

"Without their help, people (who) need to get (transported) out would be stranded without care," said Marine Corps Sgt. Stefawn Payne, a 13th Marine Expeditionary Wing radio operator. "I would have had to wait to get into port somewhere closer, or worse case, I would have had to stay on the ship the entire deployment with a broken elbow."

Whether the missions require simple transport of stable, ambulatory patients or more extraordinary efforts to ensure the patient arrives to a higher echelon of care alive, the crewmembers wouldn't be able to do their job without a total team effort.

"Working well as a team is vital to the success of our mission," Sergeant Anderson said. "When we show up to the aircraft, each crewmember has a specific role to play and we rely and trust in each other to get the job done."

Flexibility is a key factor in being able to handle the stress of the job. Being able to adjust to meet unforeseen circumstances with ease is essential for the crew.

"On any given day, we can have several things not go according to plan, but staying flexible and motivated is the key," Sergeant Anderson said. "We stay focused in knowing the most important thing is ensuring our patients are transported safely."

The AE teams in theater are an integral part of ensuring battlefield prowess. By guaranteeing the care of service members who are supporting the war on the frontlines, the AE teams are keeping a promise to get those in battle the care they need.

"So if we are in a certain location and project our might as the (U.S.) military, you had better be able to keep that promise to the Soldier that we're going to get you out and take care of you if something happens," the major said. "We're keeping that promise to the guy who's busting the door down to get the bad guy or whatever he, or she, is doing. They need to be confident that we will take care of them."

The real achievement of the flying hospital medical staff is that their patients arrive safe, alive and live to fight another day.

"The goal is to get them back to the fight; but if that can't happen in a certain time frame, then they will be sent back to the (U.S.) and are taken out of the fight to properly recover," Major Marquette said. "(It's about) getting that patient the right care, in the right amount of time."

Article by Tech.Sgt. Stacia Zachary, Air Forces Central Combat Camera