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Air Force Reservist assists in Life-Saving Care Aboard Commercial Flight

Pararescueman simulated medical training

A U.S. Air Force pararescueman, from the 304th Rescue Squadron applies an intravenous needle to a simulated patient during a medical training scenario on October 7, 2019. The 304th Rescue Squadron is an Air Force Reserve Command combat search and rescue squadron who deploys all over the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Andre Trinidad)

PORTLAND, Ore. --

On Dec. 2, an Air Force Reserve technical sergeant was in the right place at the right time when a fellow passenger on a civilian flight suffered an in-flight emergency.

Tech. Sgt. Donny, a Pararescue specialist, with 304th Rescue Squadron in Portland, was traveling from Portland to Phoenix when he was called into action. Crewmembers aboard his flight asked passengers if anyone had medical training to assist a young woman who had fallen ill.

“At the time I didn't know what was going on,” said Sgt. Donny. “I was pretty relaxed but apparently there were two other nurses already working.”

When Sgt. Donny arrived the female patient was laid down on the seat with both nurses providing supportive care, performing physical assessments, and keeping the patient awake.

“At that point, I made the assessment that they needed me to take command and control of the situation,” said Donny.

Donny is an Air Force Pararescue specialist, also known as PJ’s. These medically trained airmen are the only Department of Defense’s, elite combat forces specifically organized, trained, equipped, and postured to conduct full spectrum Personnel Recovery all over the world.

These highly trained experts take part in every aspect of the Personnel Recovery (PR) mission, and in addition to being nationally certified paramedics are also skilled parachutists, scuba divers, and rock climbers.

Furthermore, Donny also spent time in the U.S. Navy, which combined with his Pararescue experience prepared him to respond quickly, and comfortably, take control of the situation to ensure appropriate patient treatment and care.

Donny directed the make-shift medical team to administer oxygen and IV fluids before moving the patient to the floor of the aircraft. At this time, he took an assessment of the medical kit provided by airline staff and directed one passenger to secure an IV bag above the patient, and another passenger to raise the patient’s feet.

“In the flight kit there was a blood pressure cuff and other electronic items to assess the patient,” Donny said. “Her blood pressure was dropping to a dangerous level.” 

Because of Donny’s training, he was comfortable administering an IV during the flight, and noticed that the patient’s blood pressure somewhat stabilized with the intravenous therapy. 

“We were still concerned that we might have to perform CPR if her blood pressure continued to drop,” said Donny.

Donny knew that airlines have a medical professional they can communicate via telemedicine, in the event of a medical emergency. 

Donny said, “I asked a flight attendant to contact medical control on the ground and I gave them a timeline of my assessment.”

The flight attendant asked Donny if the patient was able to continue on the more than an hour-long flight to Phoenix, in her condition. 

“I don't know if she has that much time,” said Donny. “Because at that point her blood pressure was still a concern.”

The flight was diverted to Reno and the patient was taken off the flight. Donny was credited with saving the woman’s life.

Donny said it was a team effort with airline staff, nearby passengers, and the two civilian nurses who first arrived to assist the female patient. 

This real-life scenario is something that Donny had experience during his medical training with the military. 

“I mean the scenario is almost right out of the book,” Donny said. “Confined space, limited resources, and a moving vehicle.”

Technical Sgt. Donny credits the military with taking an average person and giving him the skills needed to perform life-saving actions. 

“I followed what military protocol taught me to do,” said Donny.

PJs not only undergo advanced medical rescue training, but endure arduous physical requirements and are expert parachutist, rock-climbers, and scuba divers. They are medically trained elite athletes. Pararescuemen are assigned to Guardian Angel or Special Tactics squadrons and take part in every aspect of the mission.

The 304th Rescue Squadron is an Air Force Reserve Command combat search and rescue squadron who deploys all over the world. The 304th is a geographically-separated unit and is part of the 943rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.

The Pararescue motto is “These things we do, that others may live.”