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Homeland Security

Dividends from OEF, OIF pay off for medics in Katrina aftermath

by G.W. Pomeroy
Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

9/30/2005 - WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- The Air Force Medical Service’s response to Operation Katrina drew from a process that began in Operation Enduring Freedom, broadened in volume in Operation Iraqi Freedom and paid dividends in the huge military medical response to a devastating domestic disaster, the Air Force surgeon general said.

“In OEF we started the idea of stabilizing wounded or injured patients and getting them on airplanes to a higher-level hospital like Landstuhl,” said Lt. Gen. (Dr.) George Peach Taylor Jr. “In OIF we applied, and continue to apply, the same principle but on a larger scale.”

There were several key differences both before and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, particularly at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, said Dr. Taylor, who has been to the region twice since the disaster struck.

First of all, there was not a requirement to formally set up a lot of medical equipment and a large number of beds, he said. Secondly, the patients were, for the most part, arriving at Louis Armstrong through various means of local and military transportation; and their states of health were comparatively more stable than the seriously wounded troops often seen. Third, many were elderly, others children.

On Aug. 31, the first AFMS troops arrived at Louis Armstrong. A fully staffed Expeditionary Medical Support System was operating in short order. At one point early on, helicopters from all branches of the military were landing every 10 to 15 seconds bringing in people rescued from the surrounding area.

Over the next several days, joined by a contingency aeromedical support squadron and total force assets, Air Force aircrews aeromedically evacuated more than 2,600 people to various locations, Dr. Taylor said. All total, medics with the 4th Air Expeditionary Group in New Orleans treated more than 7,600 patients.

Dr. Taylor said that the active-duty, Reserve and Guard were flawless in their collective response -- a role that carried over to assistance in the before and after Hurricane Rita.

But, he said, the response to Katrina has prompted a discussion among AFMS leaders about a doctrinal shift, especially in terms of responding to a domestic natural disaster.

“What we are grappling with is finding the basic measure of medical capabilities in this new world of rapid transportation,” Dr. Taylor said. “In the past, we’ve used the term ‘bed’ as the basic building block for the medics. But in an era when we have the capability to move large numbers of patients quickly and effectively to higher levels of care, isn’t the flow from a location at least as important as the beds there?

“In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the Air Force moved thousands of patients from New Orleans to hospitals in Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta and Houston without a large, formal bedded facility,” Dr. Taylor said.

On the ground in New Orleans, Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Christa of the Air Force Reserve Command's 433rd Airlift Wing in San Antonio bolstered this view. He was in charge of evaluating patients, many of whom were rescued from nursing homes and hospices.

He said his troops at Louis Armstrong were dealing with people whose needs differed from the wounded who arrive from Iraq and other battle zones.

"There are things we haven't seen before," Chief Christa said. "If I don't move fast enough, people will die. If mom is sick or injured, we're moving the whole family."

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