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Flight Nurses


Air Force Flight Nurse

Teamwork is a must for aeromedical evacuation crews. They make medical decisions on the C-9A Nightingale flying ambulance.

Official Air Force Photo

As he ran toward the airplane, 1st Lt. Charlie Thomas had a kind of wild-eyed look on his face. The blast of air from the plane’s four huge turbo-prop engines didn’t cause it. It was the type of gaze only a boost of adrenaline can produce.

Once on the MC-130 Talon’s open ramp, he turned and looked back. A hundred yards away, an ambulance came down one of the narrow roads at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. It trailed a cloud of dust as it headed toward the plane.

On the ambulance that sunny Sunday morning was a wounded U.S. Special Forces troop. He’d been hurt the day before in a fierce battle with al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Shah-e-kot Valley in eastern Afghanistan.

Thomas looked inside the Talon. He was glad to see the plane was ready to carry litter patients and that six medics were aboard. Just as he had ordered.

“Looks like everything’s good to go,” Thomas yelled into the loadmaster’s ear. The burly, M-16-toting “load” nodded and gave him the “OK” sign.

The medics took the wounded soldier on board. Then another ambulance arrived, and soon there were two more wounded troops safely on the plane. Thomas checked them one last time. But by then, two teams of doctors, nurses and medical technicians had taken charge of them.

“They’re all yours now,” he told a flight surgeon. “Take good care of ’em.”

The men were now out of his hands, so Thomas left the plane. A hundred yards from the Talon, he stopped to watch. As it taxiedaway, he smiled.

Because Thomas, a senior flight nurse, was exactly where he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to be doing.

“I’m deployed where the action is. Right in the middle of the war on terrorism — getting to do my part,” he said. “And that’s a rush.”

The Talon, from Duke Field, Fla., flew the soldiers to Karshi Khanabad, Uzbekistan. It was the second leg of a long journey that started with a helicopter ride from the battlefield. From “K-2,” the troops went to the hospital at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Then a C-9 Nightingale flew them to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. From there they went to nearby Landstuhl Army Regional Center for further treatment. And, later, to a stateside hospital to recover.

Their journey home began with Thomas. One of three flight clinical coordinators at Bagram, his job is to help set up aeromedical evacuations. He asked for the airlift and made sure the plane arrived with the equipment, medicines and medics needed to handle the patients.

“Our job is to get patients to the next level of care,” he said.

Thomas is with the 137th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. Called to duty after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he has spent most of his six-month tour at Bagram. He jumped at the chance to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Thomas’ job is one most people don’t picture a nurse doing because it deals with flight operations. That job, and others, takes nurses away from their more traditional place at a patient’s bedside.

For some nurses, like Thomas, it’s a welcome change, a chance to experience a part of the Air Force with which nurses seldom have contact. But when they trade in their hospital whites for green flight suits, some nurses miss providing one-on-one care.

As an active duty flight nurse, Capt. K.C. Vo said, “Sometimes you don’t see the difference you make because patients are with you for such a short time.” A six and a half-year vet, Vo flies with Ramstein’s 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. “So you don’t get to do direct, bedside patient care.”

Still, there’s no shortage of applicants for flight nurse duty. On the contrary. Though the Air Force has problems recruiting and keeping nurses, it has no shortage of flight nurse volunteers.

Because, of the some 3,800 nurses in the Air Force, there are less than 200 authorizations for flight nurses, Capt. Linda Odom said. She’s an active duty critical care flight nurse who serves with Vo.

“Flight nurse jobs are highly prized — there’s a lot of competition to get one of the slots,” she said. A 12 and one-half year vet, Odom’s one of her unit’s 32 flight nurses.

Odom, like Vo, serves on an aeromedical evacuation crew. The crew cares for patients en route to and from hospitals. At Ramstein the evacuation duty falls on the C-9 Nightingale.

Above Article Courtesy of Airman Magazine

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