COLUMBIA, S.C. –
On Sept. 23, five Army Reserve Soldiers made Department of Defense history. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico Sept. 20, the team became the first Department of Defense Federal Coordinating Center ever activated for natural disaster relief.
“The FCCs are part of the National Disaster Medical System and really came into existence after Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” said Lt. Col. John H. Clouse, the FCC Columbia Chief of Medical Operations.
“There are currently four FCCs activated in the United States. Three of them are run by the Veteran’s Administration, and the fourth one is us. We are the only DOD FCC activated for Hurricane Maria. We’re also the very first DOD FCC that has ever been activated and received patients in history. Our activation is a historic moment that we’re all very proud of.”
Lt. Col. Carleton Bailiff, the team’s coordinator, explained how the team operated.
“Basically, we facilitate the transfer of patients from areas affected by Hurricane Maria, such as Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, to an unaffected area so they can receive medical care,” Bailiff said. “We acted as a bridge between the military and and civilian components of the operation.”
The team, named FCC Columbia, because it is based out of a hangar donated for the mission by the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in Columbia, S.C., was responsible for receiving evacuated patients on flights from either Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, evaluating the patients, and then setting them up with care at a local hospital.
Typically, the team would receive notice from the United States Transportation Command that a flight was inbound from either the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico, about four hours before the plane touched down in Columbia. The patients arrived on a variety of aircraft, both civilian and military. The team would then track the flight, make sure that medical personnel were on hand to evaluate the evacuated patients on arrival, then ensure that a bed was available at a local hospital for transfer for continuing care.
One of the operation's key players was the Spartanburg, S.C., Hospital Emergency Response team, led by coordinator Jeff Straub. The team consists of Spartanburg Hospital employees who volunteered for the additional duty. Straub’s team has been working with the FCC since 2005, forming after Hurricane Katrina. The team has grown from 13 volunteers to 103.
In this instance, the team was responsible for assessing the patients when they got off the plane in Columbia and then administering any necessary care in the hangar before the patients were transported to an area hospital.
“I bring doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, nurse practitioners and patient access detachment individuals who do the registration and regulation for those patients when they come into the patient reception area,” Straub said. “Our role is to work through the triage and treatment modalities until we can get them to a definitive care site in the local area. In a way we are a hitching post – we make sure the patient’s condition has not worsened during the lengthy flight and what we were told their conditions are is what they are.”
Straub said most of the patients are people with long-term health problems such as diabetes, or dialysis, cardiac, or respiratory patients who can no longer receive care due to the devastation in Puerto Rico/the Virgin Islands.
Though Straub is a civilian now, he spent 13 years as a Navy Corpsman, and said that he enjoys working with the military.
“No matter what uniform you’re wearing, no matter what your origin is, when it comes to this type of situation, when we come together with all our resources, we are one team,” Straub said. “We did everything we could to all pull together and to provide the best care possible for these people who were stricken with this disaster.”
Active duty medics from Moncrief Army Health Clinic at Fort Jackson were also part of that team that evaluated incoming patients. For one Soldier in particular, Spc. Alexander Graham, an X-Ray technician with the U.S. Army Medical Activity Fort Jackson from Spring Lake, N. C., the mission hit close to home.
“I’m of Puerto Rican descent, so once I heard there was an opportunity to help out I jumped on it,” Graham said. “I even thought my family could be here. Knowing that I would be helping out Puerto Ricans and people from the Caribbean specifically, I wanted to be a part of the mission.”
Graham, assisted with everything during the mission, from set-up and teardown of medical stations, carrying litters, helping patients off planes, and driving family members to the hospital. He assisted with this while waiting a week and a half to have direct contact from family members in Puerto Rico.
“Since I’ve been here there’s been many families – families from Puerto Rico, Saint Thomas, Saint Paul we at least got to touch – not physically, but at least in their hearts and their minds, and to ease a little of the pain that they’ve had over the past couple weeks, and that’s been the most special thing for me.”
Along with Active Duty and Army Reserve Soldiers, the Salvation Army, South Carolina Forestry Commission, American Red Cross and numerous other organizations also played a role in the joint operation.
In the first two weeks of the mission, around 20 patients, as well as numerous ambulatory evacuees (such as accompanying family members) received treatment in the patient reception area. That may not seem like an overwhelming number, but after years of preparation, Clouse said seeing the team in action is a success.
“The first time an airplane landed with a civilian casualty that was a historic event because traditionally we would receive military casualties from the overseas theatre,” Clouse said. “It’s important because we’re here and we’re helping our neighbors. It’s very, very exciting.”
The five Soldiers on the Army Reserve FCC team were Bailiff, Clouse, Lt. Col. William Shane Robbins, the team’s Administrative Chief, Maj. Karean Troy, the team’s patient administration officer, and Sgt. Maj. Clarence Edward Hill, the team’s safety officer and operations non-commissioned officer in charge.
“Sometimes we take for granted the basic things that we have every day,” Troy said. “A lot of our patients have been seniors, and a lot of them are displaced from their families, so I think of the hardship they’re going through. They’re coming into a situation where they may have language challenges, and being in a totally different land and needing medical help. We’ve had some late nights, but I think I would do it all again for free.”