FALLS CHURCH, Va. --
This year, the 2021 Chief Richard L. Etchberger award has been granted to the Air Force respiratory care practitioner career field for the incredible achievements made by the enlisted Airmen.
The Department of the Air Force award, named after Medal of Honor recipient Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, recognizes the selfless service of Airmen in an enlisted career field. This year, respiratory care practitioners are being recognized for their dedication, innovation and critical action amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our respiratory care practitioners had no playbook for this disease yet they stepped up when our service members and nation needed them most,” said Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg, U.S. Air Force Surgeon General. “They had to build on the training and experience they had and develop new and effective ways to save lives. They were innovative amid the chaos of the pandemic, implementing the ‘think without the box’ mentality we needed of our Airmen.”
“The respiratory care practitioner career field is a low supply, high demand career field,” said Chief Master Sgt. Lisa Pickett, respiratory care practitioner career field manager, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “There are only 487 across the Total Air Force and every single one of them are needed to deliver care at home and deployed, especially when responding to the pandemic.”
Respiratory care practitioners were deployed in many ways to the frontlines of the pandemic.
When the transport isolation system and the Negatively Pressurized Conex were deployed for the first time, respiratory care practitioners were needed to move COVID-19 patients, ensuring they received respiratory care in flight. They were also part of Federal Emergency Management Agency strike teams, and were embedded in overwhelmed civilian hospitals across the country.
Simultaneously, knowing they were facing something new, respiratory care practitioners adapted and adjusted processes to provide the best care. As they were learning more about COVID-19, they were also working to standardize procedures, including airway management, transport, and isolation of patients.
“The pandemic forced us to adjust how we do our jobs,” said Senior Airman Jose Galindo, a respiratory therapist at Brooke Army Medical Center, Joint Base San Antonio - For Sam Houston, Texas. “Something that would take us 15 to 20 minutes now takes us 30 to 40 minutes. We had special procedures for entering and exiting the room, and taking on and off our protective equipment to ensure we were keeping our patients safe and the medical team safe.”
At the height of the pandemic, when critical supplies were limited, including ventilators, respiratory care practitioners worked to standardize split ventilation to help care for more patients. This split ventilation process was pushed out as a standard across the Military Health System.
For Staff Sgt. ChaRoyce Grier, Critical Care Air Transport Initial Course instructor at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing, COVID-19 shed light on the vital role respiratory care practitioners play, and how responsive and adaptable these Airmen had to be to do their jobs.
“We became teachers as we were sought after for education on the mechanical ventilator,” said Grier. “We also became students again, studying and training on the how the virus impacted our patients and how to treat them. Patient loads became larger, and our normal hospital settings became altered as we were task to respond in different locations. I viewed this as an opportunity to represent the career field in the highest regard.”
Pickett attributes their success in responding to the pandemic to the training they receive.
“Part of our training involved working in civilian trauma centers,” said Pickett. “Because of this, we were able to seamlessly work with our civilian counterparts when they needed us. We have been ramping up our ability to respond to such events. This is our wartime mission.”
Despite the limitations COVID-19 presented, 70 new respiratory care practitioners graduated and provided additional support to the pandemic response.
“There was a struggle between maintaining social distancing and conducting in-depth simulation with students within very close proximity,” said Tech. Sgt. Kyle Watters, Education and Training non-commissioned officer in charge with the Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills, or C-STARS, at Cincinnati, Ohio. “We had to find creative ways to ensure that mission continues while training future generations of CCAT teams.”
While the pandemic brought the need of respiratory care experts front and center, these Airmen have always been a vital component of medical teams, delivering care at MTFs, on the back of aircraft, and embedded within civilian hospitals across the United States through the 711th Human Performance Wing’s C-STARS training program, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory.
“The enlisted Airmen in the respiratory care practitioner career field exemplify the high standards of Air Force medicine, showing ingenuity and resilience when faced with some of the biggest challenges,” said Hogg. “I could not be more proud to represent these amazing men and women.”