SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill.-- When aeromedical evacuation teams from Scott Air Force Base landed in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 28 to assist with recovery efforts, they saw a “mangled mess.”
Tropical trees were ripped from their roots spread across the island.
Power lines laid destroyed in the middle of the streets, and roads were left nearly useless due to flooding.
Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that devastated the northeast Caribbean in September was the seventh consecutive hurricane to cause disastrous destruction to the area.
“Trees were snapped off, just twisted and mangled—stuff that was probably beautiful like greenery, foliage, tropical plants; there wasn’t a flower to be found,” said Lt. Col. Perry Johns, a team lead for the AE and medical crews sent from Scott to assist.
He, along with Airmen from the 375th Medical Group and AE squadron, joined up with Airmen from Air Mobility Command, and U.S. Transportation Command, to go to St. Croix to assist medical patients and evacuate the island, returning Nov. 12.
He said throughout their time on the island, the team treated and moved 135 priority and urgent patients during nine missions over seven days. The team had exceeded its expectations because it is meant to see up to 10 patients at a time, but they were getting groups of 20 to 30.
“We were able to expand out our ‘doctrinal expectations,’ and we flexed with the changes to make it work,” said Johns. “A lot of credit goes to the teams that recognized the situation, flexed with the demands we were put under, and provided everything that the patients needed.”
Col. Elizabeth Anderson-Doze, AMC’s branch chief for flight and operational medicine, volunteered to go with the Enroute Patient Staging System team as a flight surgeon. She said the only hospital on the island was badly damaged and needed to be evacuated.
“Our mission was to evacuate the whole hospital because it had sustained significant damage. There was no power throughout the entire island. After the hurricane hit, they had been operating on generator power and there was also significant physical damage as well, so the decision was made to close the hospital. All those patients had to be evacuated off the island since there was no other hospital to go to.”
Anderson-Doze said after landing in St. Croix the team was notified that they would be expected to start seeing patients within the hour. They looked to a damaged airport as the location for their medical staging facility.
“They were operating off generated power,” said Anderson-Doze. “There was one big room that was used by the local port authority that had air conditioning when the generator was working, so we decided to set up shop there.”
Since the team needed to start seeing patients right away, it became hectic very quickly. Usually when dealing with patients, the team knows who they will see and has some of their medical information. This was not the case, recalled Anderson-Doze.
“We had been up all night the night before. We were all tired and hungry ourselves, but we couldn’t really think about ourselves. We were just thinking about the patients. That first day we had seen maybe 20 patients, but it seemed like 100 because they were all critical.”
Both Anderson-Doze and Johns said they were impressed with what their teams were willing to do for the patients in need and their willingness to be there.
Anderson-Doze said she would see Airmen breaking up pieces of their own MREs and giving it to hungry patients. She said she saw Airmen giving pieces of their own clothing to patients and family members who didn’t have anything.
Johns said, “When we were getting rained on (the rooftop was failing), and we were getting up in the middle of the night to fix it, there was no complaining. When we were working long days out in the heat, there was no complaining. It was just a group of people who were proud to represent the U.S military.”
The experience in all and the chance to help those in need made the mission very rewarding, he said.
“We were all happy to be a part of the mission,” said Johns. “Everybody was very excited to get a chance to go down there and help out their fellow citizens who needed help. It was one of those reasons why we join the Air Force.
“Most medics don’t join the Air Force to pick up a rifle ... they join because they want to go help people, so this was (a great mission to be part of).”