Diverse roles require flexibility, professionalism from Air Force nurses

AIR FORCE DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON -- When a wounded Marine arrived at the Aeromedical Staging Facility on Joint Base Andrews, Md., in 2004, Lt. Col. Kelli Lorenzo never thought she would be caring for the young man long enough to have her life changed. Her job was to stabilize him for swift transport from Andrews to one of the major military hospitals in the National Capital Region.

Then the Marine was delayed.

Colonel Lorenzo was charged with the temporary care of a young man who, while clearing out a building known to harbor insurgents, "Heard a clunk-clunk-clunk on the stairs -- a grenade, which left him with severe abdominal and lower extremity shrapnel wounds," said the colonel. "When he arrived in the ASF he had several tubes and lines. His follow-on mission was delayed and in the couple of days he stayed with us, I had the opportunity to hear the full story of how he was injured."

The story he related to her is harrowing, but not uncommon:

"After I was hit, one of my team members I had often fussed and feuded with threw me over his shoulder and got me out of that building to safety." Colonel Lorenzo remarked how the pain must have been excruciating, but what the young Marine recalled with tears was, "My main thought was how he put himself in danger to save me..."

While bonding with the Marine, Colonel Lorenzo took away a new point-of-view. "What I learned from this young man and the 15,000 wounded who passed through the ASF doors during my time there was perspective on what is really important in life. And, to not take for granted all the simple pleasures we enjoy in this country every day."

During a period of high-tempo deployments to critical areas throughout the world, National Nurse's Week, held May 6-12, provided a chance for Airmen to look around and appreciate the men and women now asked to save lives in non-traditional Air Force deployment locations.

The 79th Medical Wing operates an ASF, which serves as a major port of entry for wounded warriors, like the Marine wounded in Fallujah. Transport aircraft arrive three times a week at Andrews, laden with members from all services who have sustained injuries abroad as a result of direct conflict with enemy combatants, or who were wounded while executing a mission.

As home to the only Medical Wing in the National Capital Region, the Air Force District of Washington asked its nurses and technicians what their take is on life as a nurse in today's Air Force. On the skills required to take on a job which decides whether patients live or die, they all said they rely on a combination of training and constant vigilance. "A good nurse is always looking to answer the question "why" to a situation or patient scenario. We, as nurses, must dig deeper to resolve any issue. If you hit a dead end, pursue other avenues to get your answers," said Col. Lori Macias, Chief Nurse for the 79th Medical Wing also headquartered at Andrews.

"I always teach that the most important thing we know is what we don't know," said Lt. Col. Kathryn Tate, a Certified Nurse-Midwife who is now serving as executive officer to the Air Force District of Washington Commander Maj. Gen. Darren McDew. "The critical thinking skills I learned as a nurse provide me the ability to tackle anything that walks through the door" of AFDW. She went on to say, "Nursing teaches you to be ready for anything, whether at the bedside or in a position of leadership."

Colonel Tate has commanded a unit which saw nurses deployed to support ongoing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several of her Airmen were sent to far forward medical facilities attached to army units not typically supported by the Air Force. "Those are the people I think about during Nurses week," said Colonel Tate. "They wind up in unexpected situations and the critical thinking skills taught to our nursing services train our personnel to be able to handle any type of situation."

For all its risks, the nursing career field has allowed the three nurses AFDW spoke with to excel in disparate disciplines.

Colonel Lorenzo, Chief Nurse of the 579th Medical Group, based at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C., often reflects on the path she has taken. "There is a special sense of purpose and camaraderie in being a military nurse," said Col. Lorenzo. "The ongoing opportunities for personal and professional growth, the benefits, and the adventures each new assignment brings all contribute to this being a wonderful choice for a career."

Colonel Tate repeatedly stressed that the career field can lead to unexpected places. "I started out very focused on emergency care, critical care, and the like," she said. "But since then I've become a certified nurse midwife, commanded a surgical operations squadron, and the executive officer for a two-star general." Her biggest advice to young nurses entering the field: "Keep your options open."

As a mentor to many young Airmen in the nursing career field, Colonel Macias states. "Share your knowledge with everyone. Don't hold on to it to make you special. Show them how you resolved a problem. Recommend options. Ask them how they might fix the problem. Take ownership of the process or situation. Encourage. Give feedback."

The Air Force Recruiting Website lists 16 nursing specialties filled by enlisted and commissioned Airmen. From neonatal care to geriatrics, Air Force nurses care for men and women in all stages of life. National Nurses Week may conclude at the end of this week, but their work never ceases.