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Air Force MASF last stop for some hurricane victims

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

LOUIS ARMSTRONG NEW ORLEANS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, La. (Sept. 04, 2005) -- Usually, this airport is pretty sterile. With waxed floors and fresh air, everybody moves through quickly and nobody plans staying long.

That was before Hurricane Katrina. Now, instead of businessmen and vacationers, a different kind of traveler packs the airport -- evacuees trying to catch a plane out. Among them are many people who are sick or injured during the hurricane.

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But a total force team of Airmen are helping get the sick and injured out of the airport at a steady clip of about 1,500 every 24 hours.

“I have made two trips to Iraq,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Wayne Olsen of the 433rd Air Evacuation Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. “The mass casualties here are worse than I’ve ever seen. Worse than Iraq.

“I don’t know how many people are here, but for every 100 people I move, another 200 show up,” he said.

To keep up with the numbers, an Air Force medical rapid response force is operating a 25-bed hospital with emergency and surgical capabilities. There is also a mental health team and a dental team operating at the airport.

Plus, there is a 60-person mobile aeromedical staging facility from Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland set up in an airport concourse and providing support and medical care to patients awaiting evacuation. This is the last stop for patients -- many on stretchers -- before they board a plane, Dr. Olsen said.

“We’re staging patients and taking them out of this concourse to the C-130 (Hercules),” he said.

Capt. Edward Greer, a flight nurse, said a team of medics provides patients last-minute care. They tend to their needs, provide fluids and keep them company.

“We provide medical intervention and stabilization,” Dr. Olsen said. “And we have been moving large loads of people.”

Then specialists from several civilian agencies move patients to the aircraft.

Patients come from multiple areas outside the airport. The people arrive by bus and ambulance and go through a triage procedure before being sent to the staging facility. Then they get a flight to a hospital.

“And there are lines and lines of helicopters coming in,” to help fly them out, Dr. Olson said.

Just outside one of the terminals, in a place where most common people never get to venture, there are more helicopters lined up than most people will ever see in a lifetime. Some are from Air Force Special Operations Command, and there are many Navy and Army helicopters. Also on the busy tarmac are Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard aircraft and civilian helicopters.

They line up after having been to New Orleans. Each helicopter brings patients plucked from a staging area inside the city. As soon as they unload them -- families, nursing home patients, children and even a dog or two -- they leap into the air and head back to perhaps the worst natural disaster area the United States has seen.

The helicopters have been rotating in and out of the city nonstop since Aug. 30, and they will not stop until the relief operation is over.

“Once they get off the helicopter, they are triaged,” Dr. Olsen said. “That is happening downstairs in the baggage claim area.”

Dr. Olsen said sometimes there are about 500 people in the triage area at one time.

The worst of the patients make their way through triage and into the staging facility, in preparation for departure via airplane to any number of hospitals in the United States.

Most of the patients are from nursing homes and hospitals and are in dire straits.

“We are clearing out the nursing homes,” the doctor said. “Those patients are extremely ill. Many haven’t had water or food. Some are on dialysis and haven’t had treatment for days. We are seeing the results of that.”

One of the friendly Airmen some patients see before their medevac flight is that of flight nurse Maj. Stacia Belyeu. On Aug. 30, Major Belyeu, of the 452nd Air Medical Evacuation Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., got her call to duty.

“I saw it on the news and wondered if we’d get a call, and we did. And I was ready,” she said.

The major has family and friends in New Orleans, and she lived there for three years. So the job is more personal.

“What happened to the people of New Orleans, I think, is horrendous and sad,” she said. “I still know people who live here, but they were able to leave.”

Major Belyeu will take some of the elderly and infirm on stretchers out of New Orleans. It will be a relatively short flight, to Ellington Field, Texas, which is near Houston. Hundreds of evacuees are already there.

“This is what I’ve trained to do, and this is what I like to do,” said the major, a reservist who is a nurse in civilian life. “For me, the flight nurse is a different kind of nurse and it is something I really cherish and enjoy doing.”

She will get many chances to do her job before the Air Force ends its support to the region.

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