Leader Blues

Friday, September 12, 2008

TOP STORY > >C-130s help evacuations

Story and photos by Jeffrey Smith
Leader staff writer

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Even before the first clouds of Hurricane Ike reached the Texas Gulf Coast, three C-130s from Little Rock Air Force Base on Thursday helped evacuate more than 85 intensive-care patients inland from Corpus Christi to Dallas.

Two C-130 airplanes from Little Rock Air Force Base flew at 11 p.m. Wednesday to Corpus Christi, each with an evacuation crew made up of a medical crew director, a flight nurse and three medical technicians, who were trained in dealing with trauma.

Crews were at the Jacksonville air base eight days in preparation for the storm.

“It is very challenging. We will be picking up a large diversity of patients with different health problems, quickly, with limited time,” said Maj. Alex Schwan, medical crew director, said on the way to the Gulf Coast.

Schwan, of the 433rd Air Evacuation Squadron, San Antonio, Texas, said before Hurricane Ike, the evacuation crew had the experience of moving hospital patients in 2005 when Hurricane Rita struck the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

Crews from Little Rock Air Force Base also helped evacuate patients from Louisiana before Hurricane Gustav hit the area.

When not preparing to help transport hospital patients to safety from an approaching hurricane, the evacuation crews have provided emergency medical services to the military in the Middle East.

While in flight, the evacuation crew worked constantly for two hours to change the cargo plane into a flying ambulance service.

Technicians prepared oxygen lines, readied medical supplies and secured cots in place, which resembled triple-decker bunk beds.

When the C-130s landed at the Corpus Christi International Airport, 85 patients were already waiting in an air-conditioned airplane hangar for transport to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The two planes were scheduled to make two consecutive trips between the cities throughout the day. When patients arrived to Dallas, they were transported by ambulances to local hospitals.

The three C-130s came from the 50th Airlift Squadron, 53rd Airlift Squadron and 62nd Airlift Squadron, all part of the 463rd Airlift Group at Little Rock Air Force Base. Seven additional C-130s from the base were on “standby” status.

The aircrews are transporting post-surgery/post-intensive-care patients from area hospitals in McAllen, Brownsville, Corpus Christi and Harlingen to Dallas medical facilities.

Five aeromedical evacuation teams, which provide in-flight immediate on-scene emergency medical care for patients from the disaster area, and six critical care air transport teams– known as “the ICU on an aircraft” – were deployed. All teams are made up of active duty, Guard and Reserve military personnel.

AETs are made up of two flight nurses and three flight medical technicians while CCATs are comprised of one critical care flight nurse, one critical care doctor and one respiratory technician.

Currently, 200 aeromedical personnel are on hand at Little Rock AFB, which is serving as the hub for all aeromedical operations during Hurricane Ike. The base was also the command cell for Hurricane Gustav, evacuating over 300 patients from locations in Beaumont, Texas, Lake Charles and Lakefront, La., into Little Rock International Airport.

One plane can take the place of many ambulances as a way to clear out a hospitals’ intensive-care unit, said Dr. Karin Hawkins, an Air Force cardiologist.

Throughout the night and morning, ambulances continued to unload patients at the airport hangar from hospitals across the greater Corpus Christi area.

Inside the hangar, a large staging triage was set up capable of handling up to 600 patients whose medical attention ranged from minimal to intensive care. Local emergency personnel worked alongside Air Force and Army medical teams tending to those who needed medical care by monitoring their health and taking the time to comfort the patients.

“Our job is to ensure the best patient care possible under the present circumstances,” said Col. Rob Ament, a preparedness liaison officer with the Florida Emergency First Air Force.

Joining the evacuation crew on the plane were members of the Critical Care Air Transport Team, who provided critical medical care to the patients while the plane was in flight.

The critical-care team provided care to the evacuees in the poorest of health, ranging from being on life-support to those who had suffered a stroke, or were coming straight out of open-heart surgery.

Those patients required on-hand a respiratory therapist, a doctor and a nurse to monitor the fragile health of the patient. They were transported along with their heart monitors, ventilators and multiple-drip machines.

Team members never left the side of their patients and made sure a patient was not in discomfort.

When patients were brought to the C-130s, they were carefully wheeled out to the planes on gurneys or carried on cots.

The first plane out of Corpus Christi held 25 patients. Four of those passengers were in critical care. The other patients placed on the plane were determined by the medical staff to be the most ill at the triage center. On a second flight out, six of the 26 patients were in critical care.

“This was not a small undertaking by any stretch of the imagination. Many of the people who were evacuated were too sick to travel on the road,” said Maj. Janice McFall of the 183rd Evacuation Squadron.

McFall said hurricane evacuations have become more organized since Hurricane Katrina. She said many people during Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flooding that occurred in New Orleans were brought in for transport from hospitals, nursing-care facilities, and families were often dropped at the evacuation center to be moved elsewhere.

That is why some families were unable to keep up with their loved ones. She said now when patients arrive to the evacuation centers, their information is entered into a database and patients are assigned a numbered identification on an armband that is checked each time a patient is moved to another location.

She said it was encouraging during the evacuations to have veteran volunteers at the Dallas and Corpus Christi locations.

McFall said the Veterans Administration has been a major player in the evacuation with the Federal Emergency Management
Agency and local emergency management coordinators.

The 416th Air Force Reserve Command, based at Lackland Air Force Base and the 183rd Aero Medical Evacuation Squadron, Mississippi Air National Guard were the evacuation teams on board the C-130s.

The public affairs office at Little Rock Air Force Base contributed to this report.