Local nurse provides support at McCain memorial

By: 
CARY HINES, Assistant Editor

Submitted photos
Johnson, back row, left, represents AZ-1 Aug. 31 at U.S. Sen. John McCain’s memorial in Washington, D.C. 

Abrazo Arrowhead nurse Phil Johnson stands in front of the USNS Comfort in 2017 in Puerto Rico. Johnson and fellow members of AZ-1, Arizona’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team, were providing aid to victims of Hurricane Maria.

Phil Johnson is accustomed to rushing to someone’s aid with only a moment’s notice.

The Phoenix fire captain/paramedic and Abrazo Arrowhead emergency room nurse is also a member of Arizona’s only Disaster Medical Assistance Team.

It was in that capacity that Johnson attended U.S. Sen. John McCain’s memorial Aug. 31 in Washington, D.C.

Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMATs), along with a host of other teams such as Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, National Medical Response Teams and Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, fall under the National Disaster Medical System, which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We’re kind of similar to reservists,” Johnson said. “When they need our services, they activate us, they federalize us, we’re kind of like a federal asset. We are intermittent federal employees.”

Teams respond to man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes; and provide support at major events such as presidential inaugurations.

No DMAT teams were originally scheduled to be in attendance at the Capitol for McCain’s memorial, but once officials realized how many people would be attending, they asked the Department of Health and Human Services for assistance, Johnson said. About five teams were activated, including AZ-1, Arizona’s DMAT, even though it wasn’t up for deployment until September.

“One of them kind of went, ‘Well, McCain’s from Arizona, it would probably be a good thing to invite some members from the AZ-1, from his own state, to be part of this,’ and they went, ‘That’s probably a pretty good idea,’” Johnson said, adding about 12 members from AZ-1 went.

He said his team got a late email Aug. 27 asking for volunteers to go to D.C.

“I was able to align my schedule real quick. We got the heads up on Monday and we left Wednesday morning,” he said, adding they arrived the evening of Aug. 29.

They went through a briefing Aug. 30 and got their credentials from Secret Service, and then stood inside the rotunda Aug. 31 during the memorial.

He said his team did not expect to be inside the rotunda and only received a couple of calls for medical care that were ultimately canceled, but that the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department outside the rotunda was kept very busy.

“D.C. Fire did an amazing job outside,” Johnson said. “They were actually scheduled to secure the line and all the people waiting to come in and show their respects, and with the heat and the humidity in D.C. that time, they were pretty busy. They did an incredible job to what they were tasked to do.”

Johnson said the experience was a humbling one.

“I was very honored to be there to give respect to our senator,” he said. “And ... to the people that were in the rotunda that day, to actually have their medical needs be placed in our hands, so that was very humbling and kind of an honor.”

Johnson has been with the Phoenix Fire Department for almost 22 years and Abrazo Arrowhead for four. He works full time with the Fire Department, putting in around 56 hours a week, and part time for Abrazo, logging in 24-30 hours. He said Phoenix firefighters work 24-hour shifts every three days and that a lot of them have side jobs on their days off.

“We’re all pretty much gung ho, we like to help people, we like to stay busy,” he said.

He’s also an EMS coordinator for Abrazo, a position he’s been in just over a year. He said that his background in the 911 community made it “a pretty good transition.”

He described the position as essentially a liaison between the nurses and 911, EMS and the ambulance services, with education being a key component.

He said when nurses go to him and say, “Hey, I didn’t understand, why did they do this?” or “Why didn’t they do that?” he can educate them about how the system works.

“And it kind of decreases that tension,” he said.

He joined AZ-1 in 2004, about a year after it formed. His first deployment came a year later after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.

He and his fellow team members arrived in New Orleans after the evacuation, so they were treating a lot of search and rescue personnel. As residents were allowed to return, they focused on administering vaccines, such as tetanus and hepatitis A and B.

The married father of three — an 18-year-old boy and 17- and 15-year-old girls — said it’s hard to be away from his family, but it’s a sacrifice he feels compelled to make.

“You see the destruction, you see the people in need, you really want to help them, and you want to make sure that they’re safe and do what you can for them,” he said. “You really feel obligated to want to go out the door, but at the same time, your family’s left at home, they’re worrying about you. But in the end, you enjoy that you were able to help people.

“You see the relief on their faces that there’s someone there to guide them, help them and make sure they’re safe.”

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Peoria Times
7122 N. 59th Ave
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