36th AES flight nurse back after doing her part in COVID fight

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of change and new ways of doing things, and it has required a tremendous amount of flexibility to get things done. For some members of the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron all of those definitely ring true.

The 36th AES is a unit within the Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. The Airmen in the unit are trained to provide critical care in the air in cases where the patient needs to be transported from an environment with insufficient medical care available, to a hospital. 

This spring, as the pandemic continued to spread from Wuhan, China to the rest of the world, members from the 36th and other AE units around the Air Force were put on notice that mobilization was possible. 

Leadership called for volunteers, and along with a good many of her peers, Capt. Alyssa Sandquist, a traditional reservist flight nurse for the 36th AES, put her name in the hat.

In April, Sandquist was selected to mobilize and with a 30-hour notice, not knowing where she was going or for how long, she put a pause on her civilian life as a nurse practitioner to go where the Air Force needed her.

Where did they need her? Just about 5,000 miles from Keesler at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Sandquist found herself as part of the 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight at Ramstein. The mission: transport COVID-19 positive individuals in the United States European and Africa Command areas of responsibility from places not equipped to care for individuals, should their cases take a turn for the worse. 

While she assisted in transporting numerous patients between April and September, Sandquist recounted the first one as the most serious.

"My very first mission, we actually transported the first critical care patient, and he was very unstable,” said Sandquist. “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 that once we got him to Ramstein, but we found out later that he was making a steady recovery.”

While in that case, the patient was in urgent need of care, not all of the transfers were

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

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

To maximize mission effectiveness, the TIS was replaced by 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 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, and couldn’t afford to go on a deployment like this, but they finally did find replacements and they’re in training now.” 

Sandquist spoke highly of her civilian job stating they were very supportive of her mobilization.

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