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AFMS tradition of family and pediatric medicine

  • Published
  • By Prerana Korpe
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

(This is the second AFMS article for the Military Children's Health Month series) 

When the Air Force cares for family members—it is ultimately taking care of the Airman, whether in garrison, on deployment, or at home.  

“When Airmen deploy into an uncertain environment, they can count on one thing to remain certain –reassurance that their families and children are taken care of by others who fully understand their mission and what they are doing,” said Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Sean L. Murphy, Command Surgeon, Headquarters Air Combat Command, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. “For so many Airmen, the comfort of knowing their families are taken care of is a tremendous relief that allows them to successfully perform their mission.” 

The general emphasizes that the Air Force is truly about the Air Force family. “[To that end], there is nothing like an Air Force physician taking care of an Air Force family … and when you really start focusing on what is important to so many families, it is their children,” Gen. Murphy said. 

A pediatrician by training, Gen. Murphy recalled the moment during a six-week medical school rotation, when a mentor influenced the path of his medical career. “You need to come over to the bright side of pediatrics,” he recalled his mentor telling him.  Originally considering surgery or family medicine, the general gave pediatrics a try, fell in love with pediatric medicine and completed pediatric training in 1988. 

Gen. Murphy‘s first staff assignment was at the USAF Hospital, Yokota Air Base, Japan, where he served as a staff pediatrician from 1988 to 1991. It was soon after his first medical assignment commenced, that Gen. Murphy participated in a life-changing mission that left a lasting impression. 

The year was 1990. An infant pediatric patient was suffering from a diaphragmatic hernia –a birth defect resulting in an improperly developed diaphragm, leading to underdeveloped lungs. The 4 month-old-patient had been on a ventilator his whole life and it soon became apparent that the infant would need more in-depth care. Working with the pediatric team at Yokota AB, the Air Force reassigned the child’s active duty father to Keesler AFB, Miss., on a humanitarian reassignment. This would take the family back stateside –closer to home and closer to their family. 

Gen. Murphy, along with a nurse, set up an aeromedical evacuation to move the critical pediatric patient to USAF Medical Center, Keesler AFB. Medical equipment was lined up, transport was set up and the now-retired C-141 aerovac plane was fueled and ready to go. 

En route to Keesler AFB however, the infant started to crash. With his blood oxygen levels rapidly falling, the patient’s condition was quickly deteriorating. Gen. Murphy, then Capt. Murphy, called in to Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii, to set up an emergency landing.  The general’s team worked with the staff at TAMC to re-stabilize the child over the next two nights. The aerovac team then geared up and resumed their mission to aerovac the pediatric patient home. When the team arrived at Keesler AFB, the baby arrived safe. 

While Gen. Murphy has witnessed first-hand, the evolution of Air Force medicine over his 35-year Air Force career, one thing remains clear. The vital role of the Air Force in providing critical care in the air has been a trusted component of military medical care for well over two decades. 

From the inception of Air Force Medicine, it was the flight doctor who conducted house calls, delivered babies and helped out families. Pediatricians typically treat patients up to the age of 21, and sometimes 23. Thirty-seven percent of total Air Force active duty personnel and 42 percent of enlisted personnel are below the age of 26. 

According to the general, the prevention aspect of what family and pediatric medicine bring to the Air Force is what makes family physicians and pediatricians great flight surgeons. “[They] fit well into the Air Force culture and tradition. The training and experience in collaboration, supporting complex family environments and bringing families together sets up pediatricians to take on great leadership roles,” said Gen. Murphy. “Pediatricians have been great leaders in the Air Force because of some of the same skills they use in delivering care to families and children. These medical personnel in particular understand the importance of taking care of the whole Air Force family.” 

Throughout his career, Gen. Murphy developed a deep appreciation for the Air Force Medical Service heritage of supporting families, within the continental U.S., and especially in overseas environments. “Family medicine and pediatric care personnel provide extended family support –becoming an extension of the family unit,” said the general. “As families move overseas, further away from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we become all of these.” 

From transporting infants on ventilators in the air over long distances, to applying expertise in preventive medicine to care for the total force, family health and pediatric medical personnel have played, and continue to play, a critical role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of Airmen and their families since the official inception of the Air Force Medical Service in 1949.  

“Delivering trusted care is who and what we have been, and what we are today,” said Gen. Murphy. “The evolution now is to go from great, to greater.”

USAF. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario "Charo" Gutierrez)