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Mentorship, vigilance helped 97 MDG Airman identify life-threatening condition

97 MDG Airman help catch life-threatening condition.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Natalie Neff, an Aerospace Medical Technician assigned to the 97th Medical Group, takes a patient’s blood pressure, Dec. 6, 2019, at Altus Air Force Base, Okla. Training and mentorship helped Neff handle a recent situation in which an Airman’s life was on the line. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Breanna Klemm)

ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

It was a typical fall day in the Family Practice department until one patient, complaining of difficulty breathing, raised concerns for Senior Airman Natalie Neff and her team.

This is an unusual symptom which Neff, an Aerospace Medical Technician with the 97th Medical Group at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., takes seriously. She immediately called the patient back and began a routine checkup that would ultimately save that Airman’s life.

Neff did not know it at the time, but her attention to detail during this checkup helped her catch a spontaneous pneumothorax, or collapsed lung. Neff explained this is a life-threatening condition which can be deadly if not treated within a few hours’ notice.

“The first thing I did was take vital signs, and they turned out normal. But I noticed the patient had been coughing the entire time, so I decided to listen to the lungs,” said Neff. “As I was listening for a minute, I realized there was no sound coming from the right side. I came to the conclusion our patient possibly had a spontaneous pneumothorax.”

After diagnosing the situation, Neff immediately informed Sam Gunnels, a Physician’s Assistant assigned to the 97 MDG. Soon after the findings were explained, Gunnels, ordered a chest x-ray to be conducted on the patient.

“The first step in identifying this condition is observing the patient and paying close attention to their lung sounds,” said Gunnels. “Senior Airman Neff did exactly that and made the whole process go much faster. If she hadn’t recognized the issue and take care of the patient as fast as she did, it would have slowed the process down, possibly affecting the outcome for the patient.”

The chest x-ray the patient received, was the pivotal form of evidence needed to prove the patient had a collapsed lung, explained Neff. On a normal chest x-ray, both lungs would be seen equally inflated, but if a patient has a collapsed lung, one lung would appear completely deflated. When Gunnels and Neff reviewed the patient’s x-ray, they noticed the right-side lung was deflated, portraying the severity of the situation.

“At this point we knew for sure it was a collapsed lung, and knew the patient had probably been battling it for at least 24 hours,” said Neff. “Typically when patients have this condition, they last eight hours at the most. It is really a miracle that the patient is still alive today.”

For Neff, prior training and current mentorship from across the 97th MDG helped her properly react to the situation. Neff said her instincts took over, and without thinking about it, she knew exactly what to do during the situation.

“We are routinely taught to do an exam and ask patients specific questions, but when I was actually in the moment of this emergency situation, I was not thinking about everyday questions to ask,” said Neff. “I was thinking, ‘wow, this is a real life emergency.’ I truly believe in that moment my fight or flight response took over.”

Training and mentorship are two key elements which continue to assist Neff in excelling at her job. Neff now has more confidence to properly and smoothly handle difficult situations, especially when an Airman’s life is on the line. Because of Neff’s quick reaction, an Airman from Mobility’s Hometown is still alive.

“Sometimes life is hard. Between the Air Force and the day-to-day grind, it’s nice to be reminded of why I continue doing what I do,” said Neff. “I think the reward of knowing someone is now alive and well, or getting the proper help they need, is what I need to hear. Overall, the reward of helping others, the reward of life, is more than enough for me.”