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Flight surgeons one step ahead of COVID

Medical Airman holds stethoscope

Maj. Zachary Wilson, an 859th Special Operations Squadron flight surgeon, poses with a stethoscope at Duke Field, Florida, July 28, 2020. Flight surgeons in the 919th Special Operations Wing provide virtual appointments for their patients to help reduce contact and the transmission of COVID-19. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan M. Gentile)

Flight Surgeon speaks to coworker.

Maj. Zachary Wilson, an 859th Special Operations Squadron flight surgeon, speaks with a coworker at Duke Field, Florida, July 28, 2020. Flight surgeons provide medical guidance to unit commanders, and help ensure Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are being followed in their squadrons. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- As teams of Airmen work to keep the mission going, C-145A Skytrucks take off and land on the bright white concrete of the Duke Field flightline. Loadmasters load the plane, crew chiefs perform pre-flight inspections and pilots rotate like clockwork. It takes a diverse group of people and skill sets to keep the lines running. In the current pandemic there’s a team making sure they’re staying healthy.

Flight surgeons are the primary military medical care providers for flight crew. They perform periodic health assessments, physical fitness tests, waivers and any pre-deployment medical screenings for flight-crew Airmen, and serve as the first point of contact in their units for anything medical.

“I'm giving specific real-time guidance to my commander if he has any COVID related public health questions,” said Major Zachary Wayne Wilson, a flight surgeon with the 859th Special Operations Squadron. “The job has definitely changed as we continue to stay on top of and implement Centers for Disease Control guidelines.”

Patients are now screened over the phone and required to make appointments ahead of time. This reduces traffic in and out of the clinic, and allows Airmen to socially distance as flight surgeons to keep air-crew medically ready. The unit has implemented virtual appointments to further reduce the number of people entering the clinic.

Flight surgeons are often already aware of the health and conditions of their patients because they work close together. Virtual appointments save Citizen Air Commandos time so they can stay focused on mission tasks.

“In flight medicine you learn how to function without a lot of tests,” said Patel. “Especially in the deployed environment where you primarily need to go off of background knowledge.”

The pressure of widespread pandemic and change in workflow have led to innovations in how flight surgeons are caring for their patients. Many of them remain optimistic about the future.

“I love my job,” said Patel. “There’s no place I’d rather be than taking care of my favorite patients.”