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59th Medical Wing goes to great lengths to bring patient home

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- On the morning of Feb. 16, 2017, a patient was loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the San Antonio Military Medical Center. He was admitted and tended to by doctors, nurses and technicians just like any other patient. But this patient’s journey to the hospital was unlike any other that day.

Just a few days earlier, the patient was in a hospital on another continent more than 2,000 miles away. Meanwhile in San Antonio, members of the 59th Medical Wing’s Acute Lung Rescue Transport team received a call for assistance; and they immediately packed their bags for a mission to South America. 

“This mission wasn’t easy. We had a few delays along the way, things that were out of our control but we made it. In times like that I always see our wing at its best, said Maj. Jeffrey DellaVolpe, 59th Medical Wing Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation physician.

According to the team, the patient fell ill while visiting South America where local medical personnel discovered he had contracted the influenza virus.

Effects from the virus required treatment using extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, commonly referred to as ECMO, a technique that circulates blood through a machine that removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen, allowing the patient’s damaged lungs to heal.

As the only team in the Department of Defense with capability to place patients on ECMO and transport, the ALRT team was the patient’s best chance of getting back to American soil. On top of their medical experience and expertise, the team’s ability to work together and remain flexible were essential.

“Every time we go out on a flight, the concept of a team takes over. We must take everything into consideration when we are transporting a patient. We are trained as military members to adapt to any situation and overcome adversity; the entire team proved it on this mission,” said Army Capt. Sabas Salgado, Army Institute of Surgical Research Chief Flight Nurse.

As soon as they arrived at the patient’s bedside, everything moved like clockwork. The team immediately began assessing the patient’s condition and preparing for the flight home.

During the flight, the team worked together to ensure the patient remained stable and initiated continuous renal replacement therapy in conjunction with ECMO, the first time this has ever been done during transport according to Salgado. Continuous renal replacement therapy completely takes over the job of kidneys that have been damaged.

“Building this capability is very important. We are able to give patients with serious injuries a fighting chance for survival, a chance they wouldn’t otherwise have. This capability has a direct war-time applicability and every chance we get to work together in a real-world situation, the better we get,” said Army Maj. (Dr.) Robert Walter, a pulmonary critical care physician and member of the team.

It is amazing to see so many people and organizations come together to help a complete stranger in need. At the end of the day, we do it for the patient. The patient comes first,” DellaVolpe said.