FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- The hurricanes that battered dozens of islands in the Caribbean and the southeast U.S. in the last month left millions without power, food, safe drinking water and no way to contact the outside world. The situation is devastating for everyone in the area, but for people undergoing dialysis, it is especially dangerous. Air Force medical assets have provided aeromedical evacuation to more than 100 patients at dialysis clinics damaged or left without power from the storms.
Dialysis is a process to filter the blood of people with decreased kidney function. It removes excess waste products like potassium or sodium, and maintains blood pressure. Patients with decreased kidney function require regular access to dialysis machines, which are bulky and require electricity. The storms that pounded the Caribbean made it impossible for dialysis clinics to operate at normal capacity, leaving patients at high risk of worsening kidney condition, which can lead to death.
“Dialysis patients can’t get treatment if there’s no power, and that can become a life threatening emergency,” said Jerry Dowdy, the deputy branch chief for Aeromedical Plans and Operations at the Air Mobility Command, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. “With the total destruction of so much infrastructure, the best way to treat those patients was to get them stateside.”
To ensure it is safe to move these patients via Aeromedical Evacuation, the 375th Medical Group’s En Route Patient Staging System deployed to the island of St. Croix.
“The ERPSS allows us to provide some initial care on the ground and ensures patients are medically cleared by the attending flight surgeon for air travel,” said Dowdy. “Patients need to meet certain requirements before they can get on the airplane. We had a Critical Care Air Transport Team on each flight to treat patients with critical medical requirements during air transport back to the U.S.”
Each ERPSS is equipped with sufficient medical supplies and their own generators, allowing them to operate in locations with limited infrastructure. ERPSS can either deploy to a “building of opportunity” or freestanding tents. Rather than hospital beds as seen in some facilities, patients are on litters, to expedite their movement onto the aircraft for evacuation from the disaster area.
Dowdy says this hurricane season is unique in his 30-year Air Force career.
“Three storms in a row is tough, we’ve never had to respond to a crisis quite like this before,” said Dowdy. “We’ve had teams work around the clock for nearly a month to be able to bring people back from the disaster area so they can get the care they need.”
The scope of the humanitarian disaster from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria required cooperation. Dowdy emphasized that the relief efforts are a joint operation between the Active Duty, Reserve, Guard, other Department of Defense entities and other federal partners.
“Colonel Tami Rougeau, the director of Patient Staging, spearheaded the communication and medical requirements between the DoD, Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” said Dowdy. “We have Air Force units from many different installations working with FEMA, other DoD personnel, local officials, non-governmental organizations and other agencies. In my life, I’ve never seen anything like these three storms all hitting one after another.”