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Stepping Up: Deployed flight nurse helps COVID patients get the care they need

Capt. Alyssa Sandquist, flight nurse for the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, gives a thumbs up as she prepares to work alongside COVID-19 patients on a C-17 Globemaster. (Courtesy Photo)

Capt. Alyssa Sandquist, flight nurse for the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, gives a thumbs up as she prepares to work alongside COVID-19 patients on a C-17 Globemaster. (Courtesy Photo)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

(Editor’s note: More than 100 Air Force Reserve aeromedical evacuation specialists – flight nurses, aeromedical evacuation technicians and support personnel – answered the call and were mobilized in support of COVID-19 response efforts in April. Capt. Alyssa Sandquist, a traditional Reservist flight nurse assigned to the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, was one of them. This is her story.)

Without knowing where she was going or for how long, Capt. Alyssa Sandquist answered with a resounding “yes” when the Air Force Reserve asked for aeromedical evacuation specialists to volunteer to support COVID-19 relief efforts this spring.

In April, Sandquist, a traditional Reservist flight nurse with the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, was temporarily assigned to the 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The mission: transport COVID-19-positive individuals in the European and African Command areas of responsibility from places not equipped to care for these patients to health care facilities capable of caring for them.

While she assisted in transporting numerous patients between April and September, Sandquist said the first patient she worked with was one of the most memorable.

“My very first mission, we actually transported the first critical-care patient, and he was very unstable,” she said. “We made the decision on the flight line to intubate him and put him on a ventilator, and it saved his life. Honestly, we weren’t sure he was going to make it long after we got him to Ramstein. But, we found out later that he was making a steady recovery.”

While Sandquist’s first patient was in urgent need of care, she said that was not the case for all of her transfers.

“If they had an asymptomatic patient sitting in a place that had limited capabilities, they were still evacuating those people,” she said. “Because COVID was so unpredictable and the deterioration so rapid, it could take just a few hours and those places would not have had the capabilities to care for them.”

To safely transfer patients without risking exposure to the crew on board, in addition to donning head-to-toe personal protective equipment, the 10th EAEF first used the Transport Isolation System. Sandquist said the TIS was originally created for Ebola patients, but was never used. While effective, it could only carry up to four patients.

To maximize mission effectiveness, they replaced the TIS with the Negative Pressure Conex, which could hold up to 23 patients. After Sandquist and her peers trained on it in June, the NPC’s first operational flight was on July 1.

After five months in the COVID fight, Sandquist returned home.

“This was actually longer than a typical deployment for us,” she said. “It took so long to find replacements for us because, typically, the Reservists in these jobs have similar civilian jobs, so they were already fighting COVID on the civilian side. Many couldn’t afford to go on a deployment like this. But, they finally did find replacements.”

Sandquist said her civilian employer was very supportive of her mobilization and she was proud she had the opportunity to serve.

“The whole experience was pretty incredible,” she said. “We were doing a lot of firsts in history, not only in the Air Force or aviation, but firsts in medicine as well. It was such a unique opportunity that hopefully, after this pandemic, no one will ever have again.” #ReserveReady

(Pittman is assigned to the 403rd Wing’s public affairs office.)         ■