CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait – In June, the condition of a Soldier with COVID-19 began rapidly deteriorating. The Soldier was intubated and placed on heavy narcotics. He needed to get from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, to Germany as soon as possible.
A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster carrying an intensive care unit was at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, waiting to transport the patient.
Medevac aircraft was the fastest way to get the patient the 71 miles from Camp Arifjan to Ali Al Salem Air Base. Task Force Phoenix's Golf Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment (General Support Aviation Battalion), known as DUSTOFF, is responsible for aerial medevac missions in Kuwait.
Golf Company – an Army National Guard unit from Colorado and New Mexico – received a 9-line medevac request to transport the Soldier, who was experiencing increasing respiratory distress.
First Lt. James Pettigrew, the Task Force Phoenix MEDEVAC site officer-in-charge at Camp Buehring, put together a flight crew of vaccinated personnel for the mission. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jacob Wootton was the pilot in command, Pettigrew was pilot, Maj. Cody McDonald was the emergency critical care nurse, Staff Sgt. Jose Bulow the flight paramedic, and Sgt. Dena Lee the crew chief.
Their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter departed Camp Buehring and landed at Camp Arifjan to receive the patient from the camp's Troop Medical Clinic.
"This was the first COVID patient I have transported, so the mission complexity was not more; we just needed to ensure we had additional oxygen bottles on board as the patient was intubated," Wootton said. "The addition of Maj. Cody McDonald, ECCN, was a force multiplier."
The patient was connected to a ventilator, sedated and on pain medication. The medevac team received the report, checked medications, changed ventilators and secured the patient onto a litter. The patient was loaded and secured in the aircraft, which departed for Ali Al Salem Air Base. Crew members took precautions during the flight, keeping their face shields down on their helmets with their eyes and mouths covered.
"In this particular case, Staff Sgt. Bulow in the back told me we had to expedite the flight because of the amount of oxygen that the patient was going through," Pettigrew said. "We were concerned that we wouldn't have enough oxygen bottles on board. Normally, we fly at 120 knots to keep the aircraft stable and keep the patient comfortable. But in this case, we pushed the aircraft to its limitations to get him to higher care."
The aircraft flew at 1,000 feet, making turns and hitting speeds of up to 140 knots.
"Having a critical care patient is demanding, let alone in an aircraft when it's hot," Bulow said. "With this patient, we maintained his depth of breathing. He was completely sedated and paralyzed. The ECCN and myself were keeping him alive with the ventilator. We were the only thing keeping him alive during the flight."
"He was our sickest patient since we got here," McDonald said.
McDonald managed the patient's sedation medications and ventilator settings. They began to run low on oxygen but had enough to make the flight. When a pump delivering one of the medications stopped working, Bulow got it functioning again.
The plan was to land at the airfield and transfer the patient to an ambulance that would drive the patient to the C-17. But the tower reported the ambulance would take another 45 minutes to arrive.
"We would have run out of oxygen if we waited for the ambulance," McDonald said. "We became our own ambulance."
Wootton lifted off and landed next to the C-17 to perform a tail-to-tail patient swap. An Air Force litter team and the Golf Company flight crew transported the patient from the helicopter to the airplane. They carried the patient, the monitor, ventilator and IV pump to a critical care transport team waiting aboard the aircraft with special equipment and a containment room. With the patient safely aboard and in the care of the critical care team, the C-17 transported the patient to Germany to get the lifesaving care he needed.
"It was definitely an intense mission," Pettigrew said.
With the handoff complete, the DUSTOFF crew flew back to Camp Buehring. Decontamination protocols were followed and the crew was monitored for any adverse reaction or infection.
Lee said not a day goes by that she doesn't think about the patient. However, medevac crews do not track patients once their mission is complete.
"At the end of the day, as long as we get the patient to where they need to be, I feel we've done our job successfully," she said.
In the first quarter of Task Force Phoenix's deployment to the Middle East, Golf Company has flown 40 medevac missions: six were urgent and 24 were priority.
Golf Company's Soldiers remain ready to respond to emergencies across the Task Force Phoenix area of operations for the duration of their nine-month deployment to the Middle East.