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Medics transform C-17 into trauma center for presidential visit

Medics from the 59th Medical Wing conduct a medical training exercise inside a C-17 Globemaster III on March 18, 2016, at the Havana International Airport, Cuba. A Tactical Critical Care Evacuation Team-Enhanced and a Critical Care Air Transport Team from the wing supported the first presidential visit to Cuba in nearly 90 years. The teams -- wearing civilian clothes for security -- were part of Defense Department, White House and State Department emergency response systems. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Howard Blackwell)

Medics from the 59th Medical Wing conduct a medical training exercise inside a C-17 Globemaster III on March 18, 2016, at the Havana International Airport, Cuba. A Tactical Critical Care Evacuation Team-Enhanced and a Critical Care Air Transport Team from the wing supported the first presidential visit to Cuba in nearly 90 years. The teams -- wearing civilian clothes for security -- were part of Defense Department, White House and State Department emergency response systems. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Howard Blackwell)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas (AFNS) -- While the world watched President Barack Obama extend a hand of friendship to Cuba's leader Raul Castro and the Cuban people March 20, Air Force medics from the 59th Medical Wing stood ready to provide life-saving care.

"These specialists transformed a C-17 Globemaster III into a trauma hospital capable of providing intensive care, emergency room trauma assessment, blood banking and trauma surgery at a moment's notice in support of the presidential visit," said Col. Mark Ervin, the 59th MDW Operational Medicine chief.

A Tactical Critical Care Evacuation Team-Enhanced, or TCCET-E, from the 59th MDW flew on the C-17 to Cuba ahead of the historic visit. In flight, the team configured the aircraft so it had functional trauma capability when they landed.

Well before the president's arrival, the team was fully integrated into all aspects of the Defense Department, White House, and State Department emergency response systems and ready to receive patients -- should there be a need.

"TCCET-E is one of the newest and most specialized capabilities in the Air Force Medical Service. (We) can basically turn the aircraft, in this case a C-17, into a flying operating room," said Maj. David Matteson, a 59th MDW anesthesiologist with the team.

"We bring the full hospital to the patient," he added.

The team possesses the unique ability of performing emergency, life-saving surgery while transporting a patient by air to a medical facility with the ability to provide definitive care.

The critical care evacuation team concept was born from the need to save combat lives.

"Many studies of combat injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that the amount of time it takes for a seriously injured casualty to get to the operating table is directly linked to the likelihood of survival," Ervin said. "TCCET-E is designed to rapidly deliver lifesaving trauma and surgical care to some of the most remote and medically austere environments."

The five-person team is made up of a trauma surgeon, anesthesia provider, emergency medicine physician, emergency medicine nurse, and an operating room technician. All members are specially trained to provide surgical care inside an aircraft.

When the team is activated for a mission, it carries less than 500 pounds of equipment in man-portable bags. Capable of performing surgery before takeoff or in flight, the team can set up quickly if it has to.

"During the flight to Havana, this team went from all bags closed to ready to receive a trauma casualty in three minutes," Ervin said.

The TCCET-E team was further augmented with a 59th MDW Critical Care Air Transport Team -- increasing their ability to provide intensive medical care if multiple patients required evacuation.

"Our team was able to handle three damage control operations at once," said Maj. Daniel Cox, the team trauma surgeon. "With the CCATT, we could have provided intensive care for another three to six people."

For the 59th MDW teams, supporting the president's trip to Cuba was a rare and unforgettable experience, Ervin said.