Guardsman, OCH employee recounts transporting children burned by Guatemalan volcano

Master Sergeant Scott Burris, with the Mississippi Air National Guard 183rd Air Medical Evacuation Squadron, on a recent mission. Burris recently went on a mission to Guatemala following a volcano eruption (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air National Guard Sgt. Edward Staton)
By: 
RYAN PHILLIPS
SDN Editor

Last Tuesday afternoon, Scott Burris, a clinical information systems associate at OCH Regional Medical Center, received an important phone call.

The call came from his director of operations for his Mississippi Air National Guard squadron, asking the 31-year-old master sergeant if he could go on a mission.

“She didn’t know when, where or how long,” Burris said of the request.

But he answered the call and learned he would soon be flying out of Jackson with the Mississippi Air National Guard 183rd Air Medical Evacuation Squadron to Guatemala City, Guatemala.

The country’s Volcán de Fuego, located roughly 30 miles from where Burris and his squadron landed, is one of the most active volcanoes in the region and erupted earlier this month.

Some reports have the death toll well over 100 at this point, with others estimating more than 200 are still missing and presumed buried

THE MISSION

Burris served as the charge medical technician during the mission, which tasked the McComb native with being responsible for the configuration of the Boeing C-17 aircraft.

The crew flew out on Wednesday from Jackson to Kelly Field Annex at Joint Base San Antonio, where they loaded up with as much hospital-grade oxygen as they could get.

With the reality of the situation looming, Burris said there was some fear that it might not be enough for the undetermined number of badly-burned Guatemalan children they would be bringing back.

“If we had more (oxygen), we needed to bring it,” Burris said. “That right there kind of gave us the severity of it.”

The team - which also featured an Army burn unit - landed in Guatemala City and went to a local hospital to begin their part of the mission, which was providing aid and bringing six children back to the Shriners Hospital in Galveston, Texas.

Burris stayed with the plane as the team went to retrieve the burn victims.

“The teams went to the hospital and we were on the ground for probably six or so hours,” he said. “They were just trying to package the patients and they were helping out with other patients we weren’t bringing back.”

Burris said his colleagues reported that the hospital was dilapidated, with paint peeling off the walls - problems that were compounded by the scores of injured and dying brought in after the eruption.

“You could tell there was some ash on the ground, but it wasn’t like anything you see in pictures, where it looks like you’re on the moon,” Burris said of his surroundings in Guatemala.

Once the six burn victims and several family members were brought back to the plane, Burris reflected on his time in war zones in the Middle East to liken the situation to a previous event.

“The on-loading was pretty fast, as soon as one came in, another came in, it kind of reminded me of back when the war was really going on, with the surge, we were moving people,” he said. “This was six patients on the plane, so we were done within 10-15 minutes.”

All of the burn victims were small children, some with burns on 45-50 percent of their bodies.

Some family members came along, five total, along with two doctors and a hospital administrator from Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, which would be their final destination.

“Until then, I didn’t realize how big Shriners were,” Burris commented about the organization. “People that were loading the plane, if they didn’t have the Guatemalan Red Cross vest, they had the Shriner’s fez on.”

When asked if the children were scared or nervous about the trip, Burris said they were sedated and comfortable. However, family proved to be a separate challenge.

As the plane was being loaded, a routine security protocol required examining the bags brought onto the plane by the burn victim’s families.

For some, Burris said they held all that what was left of their lives in those bags.

“We had to find someone who could speak Spanish enough to tell them we needed to go through their bags and make sure, because I don’t want to just go up to them and take it from them,” Burris said. “The language barrier was definitely a challenge. Luckily, the hospital administrator that was down there from Shriners spoke fluent Spanish and some of the Guatemalan military spoke some English and they could kind of help out.”

Apart from checking baggage, another of the duties that can be overlooked, Burris said, is being a flight attendant once in the air.

“That was the big thing, we kind of act like we are medical flight attendants,” Burris laughed. “If the patients are doing good, we are always like ‘would you like some peanuts?’” 
 
SUPPORT AT HOME

After landing and discharging the six children to the care of Shriners in Galveston, the squadron took a break after a 20-hour day.

By then, the news was out.

“We were tired and we were checking into the Best Western in Galveston and the guy points at the TV and says ‘Is that ya’ll?’ and there is a video of us on the local news,” Burris said.

But it wouldn’t stop there.

“You try to get as much sleep as you can with the sun coming up, and I was waking up every two hours and when I looked at my phone, people were saying, “I just saw you on Kathie Lee & Hoda on the Today Show,” he said. “Never in a million years did we think Anderson Cooper would be talking about us on CNN.”

While Burris expressed pride in getting to serve his country, he admitted he wasn’t big on the “fanfare” of it all.

“It’s good publicity for the wing, it’s very rare that our (Air Evacuation) crew gets to do that,” he said.

Burris is back in the states and at his job at OCH for now, but said his employers will be more than supportive if Uncle Sam comes calling in the future.

“I’ve been gone a lot, at least this year,” Burris commented. “We had a lot of people in my unit deployed, so there were few people left behind. With military leave, I get 15 days for a whole year and I think I was done with that in March.”

OCH Public Relations Director Mary Kathryn Kight said the hospital prides itself on hiring active military personnel and providing a supportive work environment.

“It’s really kind of our pledge to not only employ them but accommodate when they are called to go out of the country,” she said.

Burris echoed the sincerity of that pledge and expressed his gratitude for being able to both serve his community at OCH and serve his country in the Mississippi Air National Guard.

“I’ve been at other places, that, by law, they have to give (service time) to you, and they give it to me because they don’t have a choice, but they give me a hard time about it,” Burris said. “But the people (at OCH) have been more than great.”

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