Team MacDill flies, fights, wins in Puerto Rico

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Caleb Nunez

Aim high – a statement of pride as well as a call to action. When Team MacDill received this call, they quickly answered with little hesitation to help those in need.

The En-Route Patient Staging System team assigned to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, deployed as part of a Disaster Aeromedical Staging Flight to assist in the movement of critical-but-stabilized patients out of the disaster area and into medical facilities in the United States after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico.

The team consisted of physicians, nurses, technicians, surgeons, biomedical equipment repair, communications and logistics specialists, a critical aeromedical transport team, and a joint patient movement team.

“The concern in Puerto Rico was that the hospitals were going to lose generator power, either because the generators wouldn’t function for that long or because they weren’t going to have fuel to keep them going,” said Lt. Col. Neva Vanderschaegen, the primary care flight commander assigned to the 6th  Medical Operations Squadron. “We were in place to receive those patients, put them on an aircraft, and bring them back to the states.”


Their response to this call began by loading a Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft with their own vehicles, generators, food, water, medical equipment and other supplies necessary to provide ambulatory patient care.

“In this particular case, we had to take extra fuel, water and meals ready-to-eat, which is something we normally don’t have to do,” said Vanderschaegen, who served as the ERPSS team chief during the deployment. “It took a little bit longer to prepare than normal, but we were ready to go on that flight within two hours of receiving the call.”

After two hours of preparations and four hours of flight, the team landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, ready to put their training into action.

“We landed at 4 a.m., and it was completely dark since there was no power on the island.” said Vanderschaegen. “The gravity of the situation became clear as we walked around the airport and we saw the hundreds of people sleeping there, waiting for a potential flight.”


The team established operations in an abandoned baggage claim area in the airport, whereas they would normally operate out of tents on the flight line, which was not feasible at the time.

“It took some creativity and flexibility of my team to work around the things we would normally have available in a tent, such as light and air conditioning,” said Vanderschaegen. “We had to be creative in the way we approached patient care in that environment.”

After being at the airport for a week, providing minimal medical assistance, it was understood that their mission of moving patients out of the island was not going to happen

“It became clear that the government of Puerto Rico was going to be able to sustain power through generators and the fuel brought in from the states,” said Vanderschaegen. “When that was made clear, we were given the option to volunteer and do something else.”

The team was determined to help no matter what, so they adapted to the situation and were put in contact with the Hima San Pablo hospital in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, located about an hour southeast of San Juan.

“We were so motivated to take care of people,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Velez Grieco, a unit deployment manager assigned to the 6th Medical Support Squadron. “We finally got our opportunity when we went to Fajardo.”

A Puerto Rican native, Velez said he was sad to see the state of the island after the hurricane, but was extremely proud of being able to help the people of Puerto Rico.

“We were seeing constant patients,” said Velez, who assisted with patient administration operations while in Puerto Rico. “This is what we train to do and to finally be able to go out and actually help my fellow people was the most rewarding experience ever.”


For the next four days, the team ran 24-hour operations, caring for an average of 140 patients a day.

“They were sewing lacerations, giving antibiotics, IV hydration, and other urgent primary care to those injured during or after the storm,” said Vanderschaegen. “Watching them do clinical care and volunteer to do anything to help was pretty remarkable,”

The team returned to MacDill on October 16, 2017, after caring for 550 patients.

“This team was an A-team from start to finish,” said Vanderschaegen. “It didn’t matter if it was in their job description or not, they were there to help the people of Puerto Rico and they did.”