Aeromeds provide care in the air

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Lucas Morrow
  • 914th Air Refueling Wing

From COVID-19 patients to gunshot wounds, Airmen from the 914th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Niagara Falls ARS provide care to patients with sometimes life-threatening injuries. They travel upwards of 9 hours each flight and at 40,000 feet altitude. After takeoff, there is no stopping, no exit, no breakroom, no second shift, no cell service--it's just aircrew and patients in a flying hospital.

Flight nurses and medical technicians make up a typical aeromedical evacuation team, known as aeromeds, providing advanced care through combat take-offs, turbulence, bad weather and more. Their gear is specialized to fit into several aircraft types, from the massive C-17 Globemaster III, which can carry up to 90 patients and attendants, to the compact C-21 Learjet, a plane so small, aircrew bends at the waist to move through the cabin.

Citizen Airmen account for 70 percent of the Total Air Force's aeromedical evacuation forces. Guard and Reserve units negotiate taskings where commands advertise week-long missions to move patients worldwide who need flight-qualified medical Airmen. Capt. Matthew Traub, a 914th AES flight nurse, recounted a tasking requested by Pacific Air Force Command during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Well, this one was out of the ordinary because we had to start on the west coast," Traub said. "We set up in our hotel, and the following day we did a full kit inventory because we had to plan on being gone for a whole week. Every single battery, cord, you name it, we have to go through everything to make sure it's ready."

Traub said the itinerary was originally from Travis Air Force Base, California, to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. That week, his crew moved patients aboard a 911th Airlift Wing C-17 from Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station, often starting their day at 3 a.m. to make time. He says that's why they plan so carefully--things can always change.

1st Lt. Jason Crewson, 914th ARW flight nurse and an emergency nurse at a Veterans Affairs hospital, recounted a separate tasking. His team's itinerary changed mid-flight to transport a critically injured patient.

"We transferred to Texas, then took a flight to Hawaii then stopped in Japan to pick up a critical care transport team, which is a doctor, a nurse and respiratory therapist," said Crewson. "Their sole purpose on that flight is to take care of that one very sick patient."

From Japan, they left for Osan Air Base, South Korea, to pick up their patient. At the time, Osan leadership instituted strict physical distance guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. So when Crewson's team arrived, they were immediately shuffled off to be isolated and ended up camping out in an unexpected location.

"They bussed us out to what looked like old abandoned dorms," said Crewson. "It was kind of like being deployed, you know? There wasn't any furniture or any bedding. They were making do with what they had to help keep the mission going but were trying to decrease possibilities of spreading contamination."

Crewson said Osan's first sergeants worked to get them the essentials they needed to be comfortable for the night; pillows, blankets and food. He says although the stay wasn't what they had expected, no one said a word.

"We all knew we were there for one reason," said Crewson. "To take care of that one patient and make sure they could get the care they need. That's what this job's all about."

"You just have to stay flexible because stuff changes every time," said Traub. "Some trips, crews might pack for Florida and Alaska weather because you just never know."

Crewson's team got the critical care patient safely to the states for further treatment. But Traub and Crewson both say what keeps them going are the people they fly with and their one driving principle--providing care in the air.