27 April 2011

The Flight Home

Kelli Pedersen looks on as Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Worsham, a respiratory technician with the critical care air transport team, prepares her son, Army Spc. Dustin Morrison, for an aeromedical evacuation flight from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, April 26, 2011, for follow-on care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. DOD photo by Donna Miles.

Evacuation Team Carries Wounded Warriors Home
By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany, April 26, 2011 – By many accounts, 20-year-old Army Spc. Dustin Morrison is a living miracle – and a testament to the military medical system that’s getting medical care to wounded warriors and moving them to progressively advanced levels of care faster than ever before.

Morrison, an Iowa Army National Guardsman, was severely wounded April 11 when his mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktia province.

Army Spc. Brent Maher, the vehicle gunner, was killed, and two other members of the Iowa Guard’s Company B, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, were injured in the attack.

When Morrison’s mother, Kelli Pedersen, flew to Germany after her son was flown here, the staff at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center laid it on the line about his prognosis. “They told me how very close we came to losing him,” she said. His lungs were so severely damaged from the blast that the staff put him into a medically induced coma.

But after fighting for his life, Morrison made a breakthrough when began breathing independently two days ago, she said. And two weeks after being wounded, he was declared stable enough to transport for long-term care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Raymond Fang has seen miracles like Morrison’s every day for the past seven years as director of trauma care at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Battlefield casualties are getting medical treatment faster and closer to the point of injury than ever before, he told reporters.

Thanks to advanced aeromedical evacuation procedures, he said, patients now typically arrive at Landstuhl for advanced care within three days of being wounded.

And despite what Fang acknowledged have become increasingly devastating combat injuries, he said 2010 statistics show that patients who arrive at Landstuhl have better than a 99 percent survival rate.

“That is really unprecedented,” he said. “So if you are young and you get early care and you can go through our paradigm of staged care and be rapidly evacuated here, it seems to be effective. … You have a greater than 99 percent chance of survival if you can make it to us.”

An aeromedical evacuation crew carries wounded warriors aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft April 26, 2011, for a flight to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to receive advanced-level care in the United States. DOD photo by Donna Miles.

Pederson reflected on the medical care her son has received as she watched two oversized ambulances deliver her son and 40 other wounded warriors to a hulking C-17 Globemaster III aircraft on the tarmac here.

“I can’t even express how well they have taken care of him,” she said of the staff. “They have been so professional, every step of the way. But beyond that, they have been very honest. They’ve been able to take down their guard and be real with us, which has been so important in helping us through this process.”

Now, as Morrison was about to move on for advanced care at Walter Reed, Pedersen surveyed the bustle as the 86th Airlift Wing’s aeromedical evacuation team finalized the aircraft to receive the patients. With Air Force Capt. Anna Cho, a flight nurse serving as medical crew director for the mission, calling the shots, the team made final checks that the litter stanchions were secure and the tubes, cables and wires were properly connected to the medical equipment.

Then, the team worked with choreographic precision as they began hoisting litters from the ambulance and carrying the patients one by one aboard the aircraft and preparing them for the nine-hour flight to Washington.

“We do everything we can to take care of their needs,” said Air Force Senior Airman Brian Fox. “The biggest challenge is staying on top of the pain curve, especially because of the vibration. We make them as comfortable as we possibly can.”

Aeromedical evacuation and critical care air transport team members prepare Army Spc. Dustin Morrison, an Iowa Army National Guardsman severely wounded by an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan, for an April 26, 2011, flight from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to Washington for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. DOD photo by Donna Miles.

Morrison, along with two of the other most critical patients, was the last to be carried aboard the aircraft, where the aeromedical evacuation team secured his litter into stanchions just a foot from his mother’s jump seat.

Members of a highly specialized critical care air transport team went to work, ensuring he was secured as they hooked up a ventilator and medical equipment they would use to monitor his condition throughout the flight.

Each three-member critical care air transport team includes a physician, critical-care nurse and respiratory technician. They’re trained to treat patients suffering from the most severe injuries, and they’re armed with about 750 pounds of high-tech medical equipment that essentially turns an aircraft into a flying intensive-care unit.

“What we do is ensure they have the same level of care as when they were in the ICU at Landstuhl,” explained Air Force Maj. Kirk Hinkley, the critical-care physician for today’s flight. “That’s the whole purpose of a team like this: to ensure there is no step down in care” while the patient is transported.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Worsham, the team’s respiratory technician, knew he would keep particularly busy monitoring Morrison during the flight. “We’re going to keep an eye on his vitals, make sure the equipment is operating properly and that his sedation levels are right,” he said.

Worsham said he felt particularly grateful to be able to meet his patient’s mother. “That makes this special. You don’t always get to meet everyone’s parents,” he said.

As the ramp raised and the aircraft engines fired up, Worsham knew he was in for a long, demanding mission – but he said he wouldn’t trade the opportunity to care for Morrison and his fellow wounded warriors for anything in the world.

“It’s an honor to be able to do this,” he said. “I feel lucky having the pleasure of taking care of these guys who have served their country and made all these sacrifices. I have the best job in the Air Force.”

An aeromedical evacuation crew makes final checks on other non-critical wounded warriors aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft before an April 26, 2011, flight to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to receive advanced-level care in the United States. DOD photo by Donna Miles.

Thank you, Mrs. Pedersen, for sharing your story. We will keep you and your son in our thoughts and prayers.

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