Feature Story: Battling Against Time Coast Guard Races to Save Infant

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Mario Romero

HALO-Flight, an organization created to provide medical transportation for the critically ill, was not flying, both of their helicopters were down for repairs. A worried mother from Brownsville, Texas, didn’t know what to do or what was going to happen. Her two-day-old son lay in an incubator suffering from shock. He was further burdened with breathing and heart problems. The infant needed special medical care, but the closest available help was the Driscoll Children’s Hospital, 160 miles away in Corpus Christi, Texas.

A call was made and Coast Guard Air Station Corpus Christi responded without hesitation.

The crew of a Coast Guard HU-25 Falcon jet was already on the runway preparing to take off on a routine patrol when the call arrived. The watchstander at Coast Guard Sector Corpus Christi immediately called them back to drop off one of their crewmembers to make room for the suffering infant, incubator, mother and medical personnel.

“We wanted to get down to Brownsville in a hurry, but there were problems getting off the ground,” said Lt. Jeffrey Close, the pilot. “We had to leave behind one of our crewmembers to make room, and then there were the regular operations of the Naval Air Station.”

Finally, the NAS was able to stop some of their aircraft to allow the rescue plane to take off. The jet’s crew pushed the plane to its maximum speed to make the trip in under 20 minutes, but the weather made it dangerous.

“The weather definitely worked against us on the way down,” said Close. “Sea fog started moving in, which made it very hard to see and forced us to come into the airport at under 500 feet. We came in low and fast, making it a very dangerous approach, but we knew time was of the essence.”

When they landed in Brownsville, another complication arose. They needed to make even more room on board. Petty Officers Paul Llamas and Carlos Rodriguez quickly removed everything that they could, including all of their rescue equipment, and even one of the seats that was bolted to the deck. With all that, there still wasn’t enough.

“As my crew was making room in the plane for all the equipment, the medics told the mother that she wouldn’t be able to come along,” Close said. “I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t want to separate the mother from her son, and then Petty Officer Rodriguez approached me and offered to stay behind.”

Less than 25 minutes after landing, taking apart the airplane and loading it faster than anyone thought possible, the crew was back in the air minus one crewmember. The flight back to Corpus Christi was somber, quiet and tense; the medical crew kept a sharp vigilance on the infant as the mother watched worriedly. Everyone hoped for the best, and the pilots pushed hard to make it in time. There was a sense of relief when the airport finally came into view.

“The medic told us when we were loading the infant and incubator on the plane that he was afraid the boy wasn’t going to make it through the trip,” said Close. “They had been trying to medevac him since that afternoon without success. But when we saw the airport we knew we were going to make it.”

As soon as the wheels touched ground at Corpus Christi International Airport, the crew rushed to transfer their precious patient to the waiting ambulance. Moments after landing, mother and infant were on their way to receive help.

The remaining crewman helped load replacement hospital equipment onto the airplane for the trip back to Brownsville. As the falcon approached Brownsville a hydraulic system warning signal went on, indicating a major problem with the aircraft, but they were able to make a safe landing despite it. After unloading the equipment and saying farewell to the doctor, the crew started to make repairs, each of them still concerned over the infant they had left in Corpus Christi.

“While we were making repairs on the plane, we received a phone call from Corpus Christi,” Close remembered. “The hospital had gotten the baby in time and had managed to stabilize him. He was still in critical care, but he wasn’t getting worse, which is a start.”

Confident that they had made a difference and helped the infant have a chance, the crew made a slow flight home the next morning.

“They managed the impossible faster than anyone could have thought,” Close proudly proclaimed. “A lot of quick changes needed to be done, and my crew rose to the challenge. I’m very proud of them.”

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