By BY MS. KATHY ALWARD, STAFF WRITER
The Air Force once again proved that it is ready, willing, and able by utilizing their training when the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced. Air Mobility Command helped save the day by making the Transport Isolation System (TIS) available and ready to transport COVID-19 patients in response to official requests for support. The Department of Defense developed the TIS, which is an infectious disease containment unit that allows a limited number of infected patients to receive medical care in-flight and minimizes the risk of infection for medical attendants, aircrew, and the aircraft.
On Monday, March 23, 2020, the 43d Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron (AES) and Detachment (Det) deployed a 46-member team to Joint Base Charleston, SC. The team included 36 aircrew, eight Aeromedical Evacuation Operations Team (AEOT) members, and two Radio Frequency Transmission members. Three of the AE Ops Team members were selected to be TIS instructors for 56 courses encompassing 287 medical trainees. Col Bonnie Stevenson, the Commander of the 43 AES, said she was pleased to see the AE team being recognized for utilizing the TIS during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stevenson worked in AE in Germany during the Ebola outbreak when TIS was in development.
According to Maj Elizabeth Persico, Flight Nurse, 43 AES, the TIS was first developed in 2015 to transport Ebola patients; however, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first time that it was used for live patients. The TIS is a negative pressure isolation module that can transport up to five patients in one module, and, because two TIS modules will fit on the C17, one is installed in the forward right side and one in the aft left side, said Persico.
During the mission, team members were required to wear N95 masks until the TIS was zipped up, and then continue to wear them until they were 40 minutes into the flight, according to TSgt Chelsea Rittenhouse, Aeromedical Evacuation Technician, 43 AES. As the Charge Medical Technician, Rittenhouse was responsible for timing how long the mask needed to be worn.
“Everyone was very cautious, and we just basically stuck to our concept of operation and made sure we were going step by step anytime anyone had to enter or exit the TIS,” said Rittenhouse. Only the team members who had to be directly involved with the patients entered the TIS, according to Rittenhouse. She emphasized that the TIS reduced the team’s concern of being exposed to COVID-19, knowing that as long as it worked correctly and nothing was breached during the flight, the likelihood of being infected was very minimal.
Persico emphasized that having some experts on board for direction and guidance, mixed with their training, made the team feel safer and more confident about working with patients infected with the virus. Persico emphasized that their team was well-informed on the full range of research being conducted on COVID-19. She added that she trusted the doctors completely and felt confident that they were staying abreast of the latest information.
Rittenhouse noted that she had been on numerous missions that humbled her, but this mission had required a considerable amount of coordination because it was new and unknown to them. They were only able to practice a few times before being deployed on this mission, whereas they frequently train for their standard AE missions. “So this [mission] was just very different, but in the end, I think having the amount of people that we do on the teams and the different kinds of expertise, [and the fact] that literally everyone had a vital role to play, helped a lot,” said Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse emphasized that typically in AE there is a separation between the AE crew and the Critical Care Air Transport Team (CCATT) members.When flying missions together, the AE crew usually focuses on their patients, while the CCATT crew is focusing on their own patients; however, on this mission, the two crews had the opportunity to work together as one team to provide medical care to all the patients. According to Rittenhouse, it was rewarding to see our AE team combine with members that made up the the CCATT, TIS support, and Infectious Disease teams.
One lesson that Persico learned was that team members need to be flexible. Persico served as the Medical Crew Director (MCD) and primarily managed the AE crew. As part of her duties, she also coordinated with the doctors and other teams and complimented everyone on the quality of their services. “Everybody was cool, calm, and collected the whole time, and we really bonded together as a team, and that really improved our performance. We had to get out there and do the job,” said Persico.
According to Stevenson, not only do team members have to be flexible, but they also have to be physically fit because they will be required to lift heavy objects and patients. They have to be mission-ready and prepared to deploy in a moment’s notice.
Stevenson said she loved this AE mission. “It is just so unique, and you feel so close to the big Air Force Mission doing AE and bringing people’s loved ones home to higher levels of care. It is very rewarding.” Stevenson said she truly appreciates the TIS team and how they work so diligently to do everything they can to stay mission ready.