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Capt. Dunkelberger: Goodfellow’s first aerospace nurse practitioner

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Stephen Garrett
  • 17th Training Wing Public Affairs
In an age of ever evolving warfare, eight highly skilled Airmen are leading the charge into an innovative new approach to flight medicine and are the first to become aerospace nurse practitioners in the Air Force. One of these eight is Capt. Molly Dunkelberger, the 17th Medical Group’s first ANP. Her mission is to ensure her patients in the 17th Training Wing are fit to fight as they accelerate forward, venturing ever into danger.

“Ever since Capt. Dunkelberger arrived at the 17th Medical Group, she has been a medical.

force enabler to be reckoned with,” said Col. Derek Larbie, 17th Medical Group commander. “She has epitomized what ‘Ready Reliable Care’ means, and our pursuit of and journey towards zero harm to our patients.”

Aerospace nurse practitioner is a brand-new career field in the Air Force. These eight Airmen have been specially trained in aerospace medicine to fill the growing gap of flight surgeons.

During the aerospace medicine primary course, future ANPs learn about the effects altitude and flying have on a patient and the processes exclusively associated with Airmen on flight status. For example, special consideration for the medication flyers take and what conditions will pull them out of an aircraft.

As part of their training, ANPs complete several flight hours, altitude chamber training, and centrifuge training. The ANP training is comparable to a flight surgeon’s training, however, current policy dictates ANPs cannot authorize flyers in certain career fields to return to flying status.

Dunkelberger grew up in Maine and commissioned from the Air Force Academy in 2015, majoring in biology and minoring in German. For Dunkelberger, serving her country is a family tradition, her older sister graduated from the Air Force Academy a year ahead of her and currently serves as a public affairs officer at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Dunkelberger’s parents also served in the Air Force. After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dunkelberger received a master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt University via the Health Professions Scholarship program.

“I was initially stationed at Langley AFB in Virginia where I served as a family nurse practitioner for the family medicine clinic,” said Dunkelberger. “I helped stand up the active-duty clinic there. I attended the Aerospace Medicine Primary course during the outbreak of COVID. I was then tasked to deploy to Niger where I served as the primary care clinic provider for the expeditionary squadron in Niamey at Air Base 101. I was selected to fill the ANP position at Goodfellow while deployed and moved here in September 2021.”

Dunkelberger’s patient population here is mostly Airmen from the security forces and airborne linguist career fields. Additionally, she leads the arming use of force program, making medical recommendations to the commander which determine whether someone is medically fit to carry a weapon. She is also in charge of the occupational health needs of incoming firefighters and their instructors.

Dunkelberger works side by side with providers at the Ross Clinic at Goodfellow, but the main difference between ANPs and other providers is flight medicine considers more specialized occupational health concerns and preventative medicine.

“We have more time set aside to tackle human performance as a whole and perform more preventative care,’” said Dunkelberger. “It enables me to visit with my unit more to foresee potential issues and be more directly involved in the care my patients receive.”

As the primary care manager for the 17th Security Forces Squadron, Dunkelberger works to build relationships and embed herself as a provider within the squadron. This position allows her a unique insight into some of her patients’ concerns with medical treatment.

“Security forces Airmen have a natural skepticism of all things medical,” Dunkelberger explained. “Especially as we are the ones who often remove them from the ’fight’ by disarming them.”

Being embedded in the unit helps Dunkelberger garner trust and establish stronger relationships with her patients.

“Establishing a relationship and being there for them on site has produced a significant change,” Dunkelberger said. “We have seen an increase in access to care and decrease in appointments needed by security forces.”

Dunkelberger hopes other units will soon adopt an embedded care approach.

“I hope to prove that we can accomplish a lot medically while out of the confines of the hospital,” Dunkelberger said. “I hope my patients walk away from this base asking for embedded medicine and holding a higher standard for involvement from their providers.”

Capt. Molly Dunkelberger is a pioneer in a brand-new Air Force career field. She is helping 17th Training Wing defenders, firefighters, and airborne linguists to be better equipped with easier access to better healthcare and improving readiness as they accelerate forward, venturing ever into danger.

“I love my patients and the ability to get to know them,” Dunkelberger said. “I want to change how we do healthcare and make embedded care more of the norm than the exception.”