Up in the Air: Rutgers–Camden Nursing Professor Reflects on 25-year Career as a Nurse in the United States Air Force

By Ed Moorhouse

Elizabeth Scannell-Desch served as command nurse executive at U.S. Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon.

Elizabeth Scannell-Desch served as command nurse executive at U.S. Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon.

It started out as a mere two-year commitment, Elizabeth Scannell-Desch explains, but the framed photograph on the wall in the Rutgers University–Camden nursing professor’s office is proof that her military career was no fleeting moment.

In the portrait, Scannell-Desch proudly stands in front of a C-9 Nightingale, one of the aeromedical evacuation aircrafts on which she worked in the 1970s, providing care to patients — some critically injured — while transporting them all over Europe and back to the United States.

Pointing to the picture, she explains, “We flew in C-9 Nightingales, C-130 Hercules, and C-141 Starlifters. We would go out to plane crashes, ship wrecks, and earthquakes, and other disasters. We could be sitting on alert and go from Germany to England to pick up a set of premature twins that needed to go to the neo-natal ICU in Germany. We would also fly patients who were seriously injured and in need of long-term care back to the states.”

There wasn’t a mission too complicated for Scannell-Desch’s squadron.

“I ended up loving it and staying for 25 years,” she laughs. “Nursing — and nursing in the U.S. Air Force — was my calling.”

Over those decorated two and a half decades, Scannell-Desch, who now serves as associate dean of baccalaureate programs at the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden, rose to the rank of colonel. She served as command nurse executive at U.S. Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon, where she directed nursing policy and practice for Air Force Reserve nursing personnel worldwide and served as senior nursing advisor to the Air Force Reserve commanding general.

But it’s her experience as a flight nurse that stands out from all else.

Elizabeth Scannell-Desch proudly stands in front of a C-9 Nightingale, an aeromedical evacuation aircraft used to transport patients.

Elizabeth Scannell-Desch proudly stands in front of a C-9 Nightingale, an aeromedical evacuation aircraft used to transport patients.

“Nothing compares to flight nursing,” she says. “That’s why I went into the Air Force. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all have excellent nurse corps, but what stood out to me in the Air Force was that I could also get to go to flight nurse school, and then, after graduating with my silver wings, maybe get a flying assignment.”

In the 1970s, Scannell-Desch says she flew out of Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany, covering missions in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

“People usually ask me if I had one assignment that stood out,” Scannell-Desch says. “I went to the worst plane crash in history, when two 747s crashed into each other in the Canary Islands in March of 1977.”

The Tenerife airport disaster — the deadliest accident in aviation history — killed 583 people.

“People don’t usually think of the military as helping out civilian airliners when something happens, but we are frequently called upon by the U.S. State Department to go,” Scannell-Desch says. “That was probably the most tragic situation I’d ever been in. We went in there when the debris was still smoking. We transported the 57 survivors on our large C-141 aircraft to burn and trauma centers in the U.S. They were all U.S. civilians from the Pan American 747 aircraft.””

The C-9 Nightingale could transport up to 40 patients at a time, Scannell-Desch says, and a routine crew included two nurses and three medical technicians. The team would make up to eight stops and transport up to 300 patients per day.

“Not all patients were critically ill, she says. “Someone might be getting on board to go have a hernia repaired because his base only had a clinic. Others might have to get on the flight at a remote base and be transported for orthodontic work. It wasn’t all blood and guts every day, but you had to be ready for it. Sometimes a routine scheduled mission would get diverted mid-air to go pick up casualties from an accident.”

After she retired from the Air Force, Scannell-Desch transitioned to a career in nursing education, first at Rutgers University–Newark and then as chair of the School of Nursing at Mount Saint Mary College in New York. She most recently served as director of undergraduate and graduate nursing programs at Adelphi University’s Hudson Valley campus. In January 2016, she joined the faculty of the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden.

“Nursing — and nursing in the U.S. Air Force — was my calling.” --Elizabeth Scannell-Desch

“Nursing — and nursing in the U.S. Air Force — was my calling.” –Elizabeth Scannell-Desch

“When I first came to Rutgers–Camden, I was struck by the warmth and friendliness of everyone here,” she says. “Rutgers–Camden has an amazing nursing program and an active network of veterans that really made an impression on me.”

Scannell-Desch first came to Rutgers–Camden in 2012 with her twin sister Mary Ellen Doherty to deliver the keynote speech for the inaugural Distinguished Nursing Lecture Series. During the event, the sisters discussed the book they co-authored, Nurses in War: Voices from Iraq and Afghanistan, which details three research studies describing the experiences of 37 military nurses and the challenges they faced caring for soldiers in mobile surgical field hospitals, detainee care centers, base and city hospitals, medevac aircrafts, and aeromedical staging units.

“Many military nurses say that the American G.I. is the best patient in the world,” Scannell-Desch says. “They are our heroes. People sometimes think that because we’re nurses, we’re immune to seeing the kind of injuries you would see during war. We’re not. You cannot be completely prepared for the carnage and chaos of war.”

Scannell-Desch and Doherty, a professor of nursing at Western Connecticut State University, have just completed a new book highlighting their research on how nurses reintegrate to life after serving during war. It is due to be published during summer 2016.

Scannell-Desch says she is excited to be teaching a new generation of nurses at Rutgers–Camden and hopes that there are some aspiring flight nurses among them.

“You have to love your country, be willing to serve, and I like to see a little twinkle in the eye,” Scannell-Desch says. “You have to be adventurous to be a flight nurse.”

Scannell-Desch doesn’t have to take to the sky to find her next adventure. She’s already experiencing it.

“I’m teaching a professional nursing seminar to freshman this year,” she says with wide eyes. “I find it invigorating.”

Her younger self — the one standing in front of the C-9 in the photograph on the wall — would probably agree.

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