TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Air Force Reserve Master Sergeant Maria Ayala just returned from a long mission to take relief supplies into St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
She is also part of a team that turned the cargo plane of relief supplies into a “flying hospital” after it landed and returned to the U.S. mainland with 63 hospital patients.
For Ayala, the mission is personal. She will also be part of a team flying similar missions into and out of her native Puerto Rico.
“It is very personal, because it was the place that I was born. I was raised there. I came to the United States when I was 23-years-old,” said Ayala.
She is hoping for the order to be given soon to fly into Puerto Rico, where one of the patients she evacuates could be her own father, who suffered after Hurricane Irma.
“The day after Irma passed by, he was found semi-unconscious and then my sister took him to the hospital,” said Ayala.
Her father was still in the hospital when Hurricane Maria hit.
MacDill Air Force Base is now being used to stage relief missions into St. Croix and Puerto Rico.
The 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at MacDill is made up of Air Force Reserve personnel who have set aside their civilian jobs to help on these missions of mercy.
“We’ve actually been briefed the conditions are much worse in Puerto Rico,” said Angela Poole who is part of the effort and a recovery room nurse on the civilian side.
Poole says it takes a massive amount of coordination to make each mission happen. The flight to St. Croix took in several thousand pounds of relief supplies and then evacuated the patients. Many of them needed kidney dialysis that is no longer available on the island after the devastation caused by the hurricane.
“The crew had to offload the cargo and then turn that cargo aircraft into a flying hospital,” said Poole.
Air Force Colonel Andy Smith is a pilot of C130-J aircraft that is also serving as the stage manager for the flights out of MacDill.
“So, there is a lot of moving pieces between the support on the ground here, the backbone of air lift across the country to down south to all of the islands that need support,” said Smith, who is helping to ramp up the operation into a 24-hour-a-day mission to save lives.
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