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MacDill Personnel Evacuating St. Croix's Critical Patients

Thousands of American military personnel are now assigned to the Hurricane Maria relief effort. Among them is the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron based at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base.

Air Force Major Gavril Goodman was on one of the first humanitarian evacuation flights that landed in St. Croix five days after the Category 5 hurricane destroyed the island's power grid.

They were told to expect 40 patients. Instead, Goodman was greeted with 63 patients, all with end-stage renal disease.

“The humanitarian component is actually a little bit more chaotic, less organized,” said Goodman, who has served on combat medical evacuation missions in Afghanistan and Africa. “They were all on dialysis. So after an extended period of time, these people, they become very, very sick.”

All 63 patients were evacuated to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia where a team of seven doctors met the plane. Goodman said the patients hugged her as they left. She will remember one man in particular.

“He actually asked to keep the blanket that we provided on the aircraft. He said, ‘I have nothing. May I please have this blanket? I lost everything. My house,’” Goodman said. “Very, very thankful for the little things, you don’t realize how important those are until you lose them.”

Goodman and members of the 45th Squadron were preparing medical equipment and supplies for their next mission inside a warehouse, open to Florida’s heat. Just outside, C-130 and C-17 aircraft were parked on the tarmac ready to be outfitted like flying ambulances.

So far, the Air Mobility Command has flown more than 45 missions and 500 patients in need of medical care and family members.

The humanitarian mission reinforced why Goodman, a single mom with a full-time, civilian nursing job, also serves in the Air Force Reserves.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
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Major Goodman and Captain Ofman both serve with the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron tasked with evacuating medically critical patients from St. Croix.

“It is worth the sacrifice,” Goodman said. “My parents were proud of me, my kids, my daughter. She’s actually 7 years old. She’s so happy. She’s ‘Mommy, I’m so proud of you.’ It was a tear-jerker for me.”

Family support is important to Goodman and most Reservists, who can be called up with little notice.

Captain Michael Ofman is a trained nurse practitioner who was on a business trip for his job with an electronic medical records company when he was notified to report.

“I got the call when I was in Seattle,” Ofman said. “I left Seattle immediately, flew a red-eye home here.”

Ofman credited his partner with packing his bags and leaving them and his car at Tampa International Airport, so he could go directly to MacDill when he landed. He’s served 21 years, active duty, in the National Guard and now the Reserves. He is retiring in fewer than 40 days, but he’ll take memories of his St. Croix mission with him.

“One of the daughters of a patient we were taking care of, I offered her a meal. And when she opened a kind of lunch box of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some crackers and a bottle of water, she began to cry because it was her first whole meal,” Ofman said. “And it was at that moment, you realized that they had nothing.”

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Master Sergeant Maria Ayala went on one of the first humanitarian missions to St. Croix without knowing the fate of her parents and sister living on the west end of Puerto Rico.

Family was also on the mind of Master Sergeant Marie Ayala, a mother, grandmother and a civilian medical assistant and assistant manager who has served in the Reserves for 10 years.

Ayala was on one of the first missions to St. Croix, the whole time not knowing the fate of her parents and sister who live on the west end of Puerto Rico.

“This is my mission to evacuate people that is in need,” Ayala said. “Eventually, it’s going to be my people, my Puerto Rican family.”

Ayala did hear from her sister almost a week after Maria took out communications. Her family is fine for now.

The 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron most likely will remain activated for weeks. So, it’s a good chance, Ayala will be part of the relief effort in her homeland.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.