Alaska Air Guardsmen overcome extreme elements to medevac pregnant woman Christmas Eve

by Maj. Chelsea Aspelund

Alaska Air National Guardsmen of the 176th Wing raced against time and overcame high winds to medevac a pregnant woman in distress Dec 24 at Shaktoolik approximately 32 miles northwest of Unalakleet.

Late Christmas Eve, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center received a call for assistance from Alaska Native Medical Center after civilian air ambulances were unable to medevac a patient experiencing pregnancy complications at the clinic in Shaktoolik.

“Crosswinds at the unattended, gravel air strip in Shaktoolik and surrounding airfields were gusting in excess of 35 knots,” said Maj. Paul Rouenhorse, the search and rescue duty officer for the mission. “While this exceeds weather limitations for civil air ambulance, the HH-60 is capable of hovering into and safely landing in extremely high winds.”

The AKRCC coordinated with the 176th Wing to dispatch a 211th Rescue Squadron HC-130J Combat King II aircraft and a 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter with a 212th Rescue Squadron Guardian Angel team, consisting of a combat rescue officer or pararescueman team lead, and an additional pararescuemen, on board each aircraft.

“ANMC reported that the patient was losing blood, so we immediately contacted our mission support team to coordinate a blood pickup from the 673d Medical Group,” said Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Bowerfind, the lead pararescuemen on the mission.

En route to Shaktoolik, the HC-130 provided helicopter air-to-air refueling, weather reconnaissance and remained overhead until the HH-60 was safely on the ground.

Inside the clinic, the pararescue team joined medical personnel to provide intravenous fluids and the critical blood transfusion protocol.

“This is the first time that the 212th Rescue Squadron has administered a blood transfusion in support of Alaska civil search and rescue missions,” Bowerfind said.

After determining the patient was stable and bleeding had subsided, the Guardian Angel team prepared for transport while continuing to administer blood and monitor vitals. Meanwhile, the HC-130 flew to Unalakleet to survey the field for a possible transload location. Upon arrival, the crew determined the crosswinds were out of limits for a safe landing and concluded McGrath would be a safer alternative.

“While the [Guardian Angel] team transported the patient into the Pave Hawk, the aircrew verified the winds and reported a 70-knot headwind back to JBER,” Rouenhorse said. “This affirmed our decision to conduct a patient transload at an airfield west of the mountain range.”

The HC-130 is capable of higher groundspeeds and can fly above terrain that the HH-60 would need to navigate more slowly.

In McGrath, the Guardian Angel team transloaded the patient to the HC-130 and flew to JBER where the patient was released to an Anchorage Fire Department ambulance and taken to ANMC Christmas morning.

“This mission was truly one of those ‘only in Alaska’ moments,” said Bowerfind. “The patient was surrounded by family as the entire village showed up to offer help; from vehicle transport to and from the helicopter to safe movement across the ice. It truly takes a village.”

For this medevac, the AK RCC, 210th RQS, 211th and 212th RQS received credit for one save.

Maj. Chelsea Aspelund is with the 176th Wing Public Affairs at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

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