Health specialist uses nursing to make a difference

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U.S. Airmen and defense force members from Kenya and Uganda concluded training for the first-ever African Partnership Flight in Kenya earlier this summer.

Four International Health Specialists from the U.S. Air Forces in Europe-U.S. Air Forces Africa Surgeon General and members from the Massachusetts Air National Guard, the state partner for Kenya, were among those who participated in APF Kenya 2016. These medical personnel worked alongside their Kenyan medical counterparts at the local air force base in Kenya seeing over 2,000 patients while there.

APF is designed to bring together partner nations to increase cooperation and interoperability, which fosters stability and security throughout the continent. While the focus of APF this year was search and rescue, the intent for the next one is to focus on medical since the trust built in those exercises proved to be strong.

Lt. Col. Kimberly Polston was a key player in coordinating the participation of the IHS team members and members of the Massachusetts ANG even though she did not attend the engagement. Polston is also an International Health Specialist team member serving in the USAFE/AFAFRICA Command Surgeon’s office – and a nurse with 18 years of service in the Air Force.

Her role was a bit less glamorous but no less important. She was the “money-person” or the one who finds the capital to fund the travel of the four IHS team members who were able to provide the necessary medical expertise in APF Kenya 2016. She does this for myriad activities like APF, including the annual Ramstein Aerospace Medicine Symposium and the European African Military Nursing Exchange, which occurred in May of this year in Garmisch, Germany.

Indeed, Polston has been doing this kind of work in service to the IHS mission for many years with African Partner Nations: “I worked in the Air Operations Center for the 17th Air Force from 2009 to 2011, moving patients off the continent of Africa. It’s an area in which patient movement is a huge challenge because of poor infrastructure and vast distances to be covered. Working with our African military medical colleagues to develop their aerial patient movement and other medical capabilities truly does help us not only to build lasting partnerships with other nations but to also to contribute to our national security. We are helping them with casualty evacuation training from the point of injury all the way to definitive care at a large medical facility – all while they are fighting terrorists on every front. If we can help our partners combat and strengthen their aeromedical evacuation program and combat terrorism in their nation, we can hopefully mitigate terrorist threats in our homeland and benefit our troops with increased interoperability with a now stronger partner.”

Polston is an advanced practice nurse (a clinical nurse specialist) with almost 20 years of nursing experience (18 in the Air Force), eight of those years focusing on flight nursing. She was deployed for almost three years straight after 9/11 and then went on to coordinating patient movement off the continent of Africa. She was an aeromedical evacuation planner, as well, which gave her extensive experience with crisis action planning, contingency, exercise planning and execution.

Through these roles she learned in detail how the Air Force works and the responsibilities of each directorate and always found her way back to the hospital setting. Before coming to USAFE/AFAFRICA-SG in Ramstein, she was at Wright-Patterson Medical Center managing a large, 65 member, in-patient medical unit. Not only does she have good clinical skills as a nurse, she also has the operational planning skills and plenty of real world operational deployment experience.

One of the highlights of her time in USAFE/AFAFRICA-SG was teaching a course last year during U.S. Africa Command Southern ACCORD 2015 in Lusaka, Zambia. This exercise brings together military members of the United States and the Southern African Development Community and other partner nations to increase capability to support regional peace support operations. Upon returning this past March for follow-up and review, Polston found the Zambian air force was willing and able to teach part of the course based on their previous experience and knowledge base. This was a true testament to sharing experiences and relevant skills that apply to the needs of partner nations.

“The one thing about this job – you can make it whatever you want if you have energy and are outgoing and you seek out opportunities.”

The IHS Program was established in 2000, foreseeing the need for Air Force medics to be on the cutting edge of global health issues in order to keep pace with evolving military strategy. Full-time IHS staff support global health engagement at Combatant Commands, Major Commands, and Air Force Component Commands. These IHS professionals enable another 300 Special Experience Identifier (SEI) Airmen at military treatment facilities around the globe, applying demonstrated language skills and cultural experience to respond to global health engagement assignments and humanitarian assistance and disaster response. Since the inception of the program, more than 400 Airmen have been trained and participated in hundreds of IHS missions that positively impact partner nations’ civilian and military personnel.