Reservists provide critical care in the air

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jennifer Gerhardt
  • 446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Providing medical care while moving very ill patients over long distances in a short period of time, is the skill being practiced by three Air Force Reserve Airmen as they take part in Pacific Lifeline.

A doctor, a nurse, and a respiratory therapist from the 446th Aeromedical Staging Squadron are participating in the Pacific Lifeline exercise in Hawaii Jan. 26 to Feb. 9.

Pacific Lifeline is a total force exercise designed to exercise the military's ability to rapidly deploy a trained, equipped team anywhere in the Pacific in response to a humanitarian assistance or disaster scenario. More than 900 Department of Defense personnel are participating in the exercise.

The three Reservists make up the Critical Care Air Transport Team. The CCATT's goal is more than keeping a patient stable while in flight - this team seeks to improve the patient's condition during their time in the aircraft.

"We are trained to extend the same high level of intensive care found in a ground-based intensive care unit while in flight conditions," said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Eric Johnson, an anesthesiologist and CCATT leader. "Our monitoring capability in-flight is equivalent to that found in any first-rate operating room or intensive care unit."

In situations of mass casualties or war time injuries in remote areas, it is very important to have a method for moving the critically injured to higher levels of care --- save the life, then move them.

The CCATT, with special medical equipment, can turn almost any airframe into a flying intensive care unit within minutes. The team is experienced in the care of critically ill or injured patients with multiple trauma, shock, burns, respiratory failure, multiple organ failure, or other life-threatening complications. The critical nature of patients' injuries requires continual stabilization, advanced care, and may even require life-saving invasive interventions during transport.

"Like everything we do, we are better when we practice," said Colonel Johnson. "Every exercise affords participants a different angle on how to do things, tricks that save time, ways to assure patient safety, how to deal with the stresses of fatigue, heat or low-light. It is also an opportunity to share our training skills with others."

To keep patients stable, the CCATT needs a variety of equipment. It can include ventilators, intravenous infusion pumps, physiologic monitors, suctions pumps, oxygen, I.V. fluids, extensive drug inventory, wound and dressing material and a defibrillator. In addition, there is equipment for advanced ICU procedures and the capability for blood transfusions and laboratory analysis.

"There are so many changes in respiratory status when you take patients from the ground to the air," said Tech. Sgt. Shawn Bovee, the respiratory therapist on the team. "It's important that the patient remains stable no matter what the altitude."

"The Pacific Lifeline exercise will help us learn and train for the differences between military and civilian populations," said Maj. Jenifer Cackler, the registered nurse on the team. "The military population is relatively healthy, but working with civilian patients ranges from children to the elderly. Add a natural disaster to the mix and it can be a little stressful."

Once the critical patients are on the plane, other considerations the team has to take into account are ventilator management, sedation, fluid management, blood transfusion, warming, and altitude effects. In addition the CCATT must take everything that it may need with it on the aircraft, including blood, I.V. fluids, on-board electrical capabilities and oxygen.