Over the past few years, the US Army has been converting some of its Boeing C-17 Globemaster cargo jets into massive, flying intensive care units, meant to transport the war zone’s most seriously wounded soldiers. These patients travel in the arms of the Air National Guard Critical Care Air Transport Teams, with up to eight team members loading each patient, as well as over 100 pounds of connected medical equipment, onto the aircraft before a transport. The hulking C-17 has been described by one military officer as “the cadillac of medical evacuation aircraft.”
These critical care air medical flights are just a small part of evolutionary changes the U.S. military is making to speed the transport of wounded soldiers back to the United States for treatment. In the Vietnam War conflict, this process took an average of three weeks or more – a long time for any patient to wait for proper medical care. Today, with improvements to the air medical system such as the C-17 “flying hospitals,” soldiers requiring critical care can now be air transported home in as little as three days.
However, the focus today is not necessarily on moving injured soldiers quickly, but on moving them when they’re ready to be moved to another facility for the next stage of care.
One Army specialist, who had suffered serious injuries in the war in Afghanistan, was transported on one of the converted transport jets. After his experience with the air medical transport, he described the plane as having the medical equipment as well as “the bells and whistles” of civilian hospitals.
Members of the 791st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron monitor patients during an air medical evacuation mission. (USAF Photo/Master Sgt. Scott Reed)
The critical care teams still try to get as much advanced treatment as possible done before taking off. Obviously, it’s a different situation transporting many wounded U.S. soldiers at once compared to a typical air medical transport back at home. In the C-17 flying intensive care unit, the aim is to be able to spend the time in the air monitoring vital signs and keeping patients comfortable, without having to worry about performing more complex tasks like putting in IV tubes.
“They just need to get home, closer to their family, closer to their loved ones, to do their rehab,” said Lt. Col. Kathleen Flarity, an Air Force Reserve nurse practitioner who commanded the air medical evacuation mission at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan until earlier this year. More than 2,300 patients were brought into the base hospital trauma center in the first quarter of 2011. Seriously wounded soldiers stay in the hospital until they can be stabilized, then are flown to Germany for advanced care.
Four critical care air medical teams at Ramstein Air Base in Germany together fly about a dozen missions into Iraq and Afghanistan every week. Other countries, such as Canada, England, India, Australia, and New Zealand, operate C-17s as well (the latter-most operating a specialized system run by a medical nurse for evacuating researchers in need of treatment out of Antarctica).
The massive C-17 is used for rapid strategic airlift of cargo and troops to forward operating bases across the world. It can normally transport between 102 and 134 soldiers depending on the configuration. Its capacity for wounded patients is significantly less at 54 ambulatory patients or 36 litters, but the aircraft cabin still provides a spacious care area, reminiscent of a ground hospital or the larger civilian air medical jets used for single or dual transporting of patients.
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