After nursing for more than a decade, Melissa Mecklembourg had seen a fair amount of trauma, surgery and patient care. One thing she had never seen? A cadaver lab. Nor was it a place she ever considered visiting.
That all changed when Haiti Air Ambulance sent her to a total of four labs where deceased human bodies are used for research. It started in 2018 with the Critical Care Medicine Transportation Conference staged by the International Association of Flight and Critical Care Paramedics followed by the Air Medical Transport Conference put on by the Association of Air Medical Services. Then two HEMS operators hosted Melissa at their training centers, Air Methods Corp in Colorado, followed by MedTrans, at one of their bases in South Carolina.
At a lab, cadavers are connected to ventilators prompting their hearts and lungs to react as procedures are executed. Melissa was able to feel the thickness of the lungs and closely examine the pressure of the hearts. “Just seeing it live and being able to touch the lung while vent settings were being changed, it made me see things differently in regard to my patients,” she said. “Intubation skills on cadavers lets us feel the anatomy as we would in real life too—and I like seeing the new techniques being done.”
Melissa said this heightened her experience as a flight nurse for Haiti Air Ambulance, where she has been working since 2014. The labs gave her real-time understanding of how to better treat patients in Haiti, where the rugged terrain makes HAA’s mission essential because patients often face critical situations from commonly survivable accidents and illnesses.
These experiences aren’t readily available in the developing nation but Haiti Air Ambulance’s commitment to continually improving the staff’s core competencies makes it possible for Melissa and the rest of the team to travel regularly to participate in continuing education at an international standard.
Melissa’s most recent lab at MedTrans came about thanks to a longtime friend, volunteer, and consultant to Haiti Air Ambulance, David Ellis, while he was MedTrans program director of three bases in South Carolina. “These cadavers were actually shared with the Med School of USC,” Melissa said. “After dissecting and working on them, we had to sew everything up. I never had to do that before and learned suturing techniques, as did Jacquelin Petit and Oberto Charles, flight EMT-Bs I work alongside every day at Haiti Air Ambulance. Also, MedTrans brought a lot of the same equipment and supplies we use at the base in Haiti, which gave us a lot of familiarity that will translate to our real world when we’re out in the field.”
Back at HAA’s base of operations in Port-au-Prince, internal training is daily, whether the team is busy with flights or not. Clinicians follow a vigorous course schedule that incorporates digital, virtual and hands-on sessions in the training room to ensure perishable skills stay sharp. Sometimes even the non-clinical crew will sit in (or participate as a “patient” in a simulation).
A steady rotation of vetted, experienced volunteers from the United States and Canada spend one week per month at the base to both assist in providing the training and ensure quality assurance of how the curriculum is being executed.
“As healthcare providers, we really want to make a difference in people’s lives. In Haiti you are able to use your knowledge and skills to have a much greater positive effect on people than in other areas of the world,” Ellis said. And he should know as one of HAA’s many repeat offenders, “I was one of the first volunteers to come down in 2014 and volunteered a total of six times for ten days each since then. In 2018 I came down five times to help consult on a variety of objectives.” Like all volunteers, Ellis also helps out as flight crew when missions arise and he’s on shift.
It’s experiences like the labs and relationships like these that make Melissa, a United States native, grateful that she moved to her parents’ homeland in 2013 to raise her family. “I never thought in a million years that I would be using my critical care experience from the States to fly for an organization like Haiti Air Ambulance,” she said. “I felt like I was brought here for a reason. I have such an amazing job.”
For more information about volunteering, or to host one of our staff for training or a ride-along, please email firstname.lastname@example.org!