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Collaborating in the ER: Medics assist, learn in community hospitals

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jonathan Stefanko

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – when there were no vaccines, a shortage of health care workers and hospitals were beyond capacity — the U.S. health care system needed help. The Department of Defense answered the call, embedding thousands of service members in civilian hospitals nationwide.

With increased immunizations and a return to a near pre-pandemic normal, the last DoD military medical team responding to the COVID-19 crisis concluded its clinical mission on March 30, marking the end of a two-year-long story for most units. However, for Air Force Reserve Command, it means a new chapter at Mercy hospitals across the Midwest.

On July 18, HQ AFRC, working in conjunction with the 932nd Airlift Wing, located at Scott Air Force Base, near Belleville, Illinois, signed a Training Affiliation Agreement with the St. Louis-based Mercy Health System. TAAs offer military members the opportunity to improve their skills by working alongside their civilian counterparts. While these agreements exist elsewhere, they tend to be limited in scale and access.

The new TAA with Mercy is unique in that it offers all Reserve Citizen Airmen medics from across the country the ability to train at any of the 12 approved Mercy hospitals.

One Airman from Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, recently excitedly took the opportunity to relocate to Missouri for six weeks, working alongside the Mercy medical staff and providing exceptional care to the St. Louis community.

“I learned a lot in the time I’ve been working at Mercy,” said Senior Airman Ursula Lindsey, an aerospace medical technician assigned to Maxwell’s 908th Airlift Wing. “But the most impressive and encouraging highlight is that everyone, whether a doctor, nurse or other staff, takes the time to make every moment a teaching moment. Even when the hospital gets extremely busy, everyone at Mercy always looks out for each other, and they extend that same hospitality to us – the Airmen.

“It’s a wonderful program. There’s nothing else like it,” Lindsey continued. “The training we receive here is invaluable. While the military offers a lot, there are just some medical scenarios that we’d only be able to experience and work through in a civilian hospital, compared to a military clinic.”

Two Uniforms, One Team

While the AFRC-wide TAA was signed early this year, the collaboration between the 932nd AW and Mercy traces back more than a decade. It’s easy to spot the military members taking part in the partnership. While they don a light blue scrub top with “Mercy” inscribed across the breast pocket, you’d be hard pressed to miss their military-issued camouflage pants and coyote brown boots.

“When starting the program, we had to decide what our Airmen would wear – scrubs or their uniform,” said Lt. Col. Ed Hubbell, 932nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron officer-in-charge of consolidated training. “It’s a seemingly insignificant choice to make; but in reality, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. They could be misinterpreted as a Mercy co-worker if they wore all scrubs. However, a full military uniform may be too much in a civilian setting. So, we decided that the image we wanted to portray was a blend of both worlds. They’d don a Mercy top while staying unmistakenly military.”

As the program grew over the years, so did the number of Reserve Citizen Airmen continuing their medical training at Mercy.

“The 932nd has been with us for so long that it’s hard to believe they weren’t always a part of the Mercy team,” said Robyn Weilbacher, Mercy Hospital St. Lous chief nursing officer. “It’s natural for us to walk into a department and see the Airmen working there or in the cafeteria just like any other co-worker.

“I like to think that we’ve brought them into the Mercy family and gotten to know them as people, not just someone who comes to help us for a short time. Yeah, they’re Reservists and they’ll leave, but the Airmen here share our values, and I hope they feel as much a part of the Mercy team as we do.”

Preparing Today for the Battle Tomorrow

Unlike active-duty Airmen, who do the same job daily, Reserve Citizen Airmen live dual lives. Often, this distinction brings new perspectives, skills and ideas that contribute to AFRC’s culture of diversity. However, this also means Reservists may not always get the training or experience they need to be effective in a deployed setting.

“A vast majority of our Reserve medical technicians do not work in a hospital setting in their civilian employment,” said Col. Karen Steiner, AFRC Command Nurse. “Many are teachers, truck drivers, students. They don’t get the hands-on training and opportunities that an active-duty Airmen would receive.

“So, having this TAA in place with Mercy truly opens the door of opportunity for our Citizen Airmen to go gain the training and real-world experience they desperately need. While here, they are in the emergency room, in the intensive care unit, working with patients requiring various medical care. These are all experiences and skills that will help them be effective downrange.”

Master Sgt. DeShae Clinton, a medical technician with the 932nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron, is a professional care provider through and through. She has 17 years of military experience, all in the medical career field, and has deployed as a combat medic twice in her career. Clinton has been with Mercy since April, working as a liaison between the hospital and AFRC, ensuring that incoming Airmen receive their upgrade training and experience different areas throughout the hospital.

“The Airmen who come here are always eager to learn,” Clinton said. “They may not always get the opportunity on the floor or work with other med techs and engage with patents at their home station. Often, these Airmen don’t do anything medical in their civilian world, so when they come here, you see them grasp all the skills they can. I love to see it!”

Challenges to a Lasting Legacy

In a recent U.S. News and World Report article, the American Nurses Association said that the nation would need an additional 1.2 million nurses by next year to meet the growing demand.

Yet, military treatment facilities continue to close and downsize, leaving military families to transition to a civilian health care system that may not be ready for the additional patients.

Training agreements like the one between AFRC and Mercy may be the answer – augmenting the shortage of civilian medical professionals with their military counterparts.

“Having these Airmen with us is a huge benefit to Mercy as a whole,” Weilbacher said. “The support they bring is amplified whenever we’re shorthanded on staff. They truly step up, integrate into the departments and work with us as a team. It means everything to us.”

While this agreement benefits everyone involved, it does not come without obstacles, the biggest of which is funding.

“There are many moving pieces when working with an organization as vast as Mercy,” said Chief Master Sgt. Rebecca Marrs, AFRC’s Aerospace Medical Service 4N functional manager. “Communication is always a challenge, and ensuring the resources exist to continue this program is a struggle. It’s not detrimental. The program is not only surviving, but thriving. However, we must constantly keep these things in mind and balance.”

While challenges exist, Hubbell, who is credited with starting this collaboration, hopes to see the program continue to grow and flourish.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to see not only Mercy embrace the program, but the opportunities for the military too,” Hubbell said. “While serving in the first and second Gulf War, I saw people struggle with their clinical skills. Agreements like this ensure our Airmen are adequately trained to support anything they may experience downrange. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

“I’m also pleased to see how far this program has evolved in almost 20 years. It’s not just one unit or three, but now the entire Air Force Reserve has the same opportunities as the 932nd. I’m greatly honored that I had the chance to build this program and see what it’s become today. Even though I’m nearing military retirement, this Mercy-Air Force relationship is far from ending. The story has merely started, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.”

(Stefanko is assigned to the 932nd Airlift Wing public affairs office.)