Her anxious brown eyes stare large around her. The red jump seats, wires, oxygen masks, bare sheet metal and overall cold, dark interior of a C-130 Hercules are not comforting to the young mother whose 7-month-old son is out of an intensive care unit for the first time.
Kaitlyn Crawford delivered her son Nakoa prematurely at 25 weeks old. He’s been in an ICU at the children’s hospital in Dallas, far from her home in San Diego, ever since, his health too fragile for him to be moved.
Kaitlyn quietly tells the nurse that she likes to call him “Koa.” She keeps her arms crossed over herself and her eyes on her small child on the litter. It's difficult to hear her over the squealing engines and propellers as the pilot prepares to take off. She tells the team caring for him that he likes his pacifier, but he sometimes pushes it away. She says that she’s having a hard time, her mother passed away three days before and she’s been away from her husband and daughter for the past seven months.
After the significant and ongoing health issues Koa has experienced since being born prematurely, he was stable enough to be transported to where Kaitlyn’s husband, U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Crawford, is stationed. A critical care air transport team from the 59th Medical Wing, based out of Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, was alerted to provide the specialized care needed for the June 7 mission.
“I gave up my civilian life to serve those who serve and I take it very seriously,” said Capt. Nicole Leib, CCATT nurse. “[As a nurse] I get many opportunities to be the strong one in a situation where families are falling apart from the stress.”
CCATT is a uniquely Air Force mission, a flying ICU, typically used to transport critically injured service members from a point of injury or a hospital, to a hospital where they can receive the elevated level of care they need. Comprised of a doctor, nurse and respiratory therapist, the team must pack everything they will need while airborne - echocardiogram, oxygen, blood, medicine and other tools of the trade.
Wax protects Koa’s small ears from the noise, tubes extend from his nose and are taped to his toes. His velvety brown eyes, a calmer mirror of his mother’s, look around him with fascination. The team members responsible for keeping him safe and healthy on the flight to his new home at the Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego comment on what a good baby he is being. He is accustomed to being handled, to being around strangers, to loud noises and cold places. They smile at him, talk to him. He babbles back at them.
The baby is too small for the litters usually used, so the CCATT has strapped a car seat to one slung between metal braces. Practiced in treating patients with limited space, resources and support, the team communicates via headset. Leib, and Respiratory Therapist, Senior Airman Analiese Heitkamp, stand by the baby’s side for the entire five-hour flight.
“We rely on the three of us to not only care for the patient in the air, but to care for our team members as well, and in this case, the mother too,” said Heitkamp. “No medical provider goes into medicine for selfish reasons. The amount of mutual trust and respect we have for each other is immense and of paramount importance.”
They hand his mother, who had been anxiously watching every movement, jumping up to check on Koa every few moments during the beginning of the flight, a blanket.
Exhausted, she falls asleep.
“[I wanted to] stand with Koa so his mom could find some comfort,” said Leib. “It's my hope that she did.”
The CCATT members’ job isn’t done when they land on the tarmac. In another flurry of activity, they carry the litter weighted with baby, respiratory machines and oxygen tanks from plane to ambulance, ambulance to hospital, and finally to the new neonatal intensive care unit that will be Koa’s home until he is ready to truly go home with his parents and sister.
“Every single one of us wanted to be there,” Heitkamp said. “Despite the tired faces and sweaty flight suits, we were happy to be entrusted with his care. The bright-eyed smiles he sent our way made it all worthwhile.”
She pauses on her way out of his new pastel-walled hospital room.
Pulling the CCATT patch from the sleeve of her uniform, she turns back, hands the patch to Kaitlyn.
“It was an honor to care for your son. You’re in good hands now.”
Tear-filled brown eyes look at her. Kaitlyn smiles back, nods. She says, “thank you,” and turns to Koa.