December 8, 2017
Health Care Heroes Awards

CCMC's Wheeler and Hayes provide comfort, care during times of stress, devastation

Critical care transport nurses Lynn Piacentini-Hayes and Wendy Wheeler.

Category: Nurses

Lynn Piacentini-Hayes and Wendy Wheeler

Employer: Connecticut Children's Medical Center

Titles: Critical Care Transport Nurses

When it comes to caring for others, nurses Wendy Wheeler and Lynn Hayes operate on both the local and national stage.

As part of the critical care transport team for Connecticut Children's Medical Center, the women are charged with moving their young patients to and from hospitals for specialty treatments.

As members of the National Disaster Medical System, they swoop in with the Connecticut One Team to set up emergency hospitals and medical care facilities.

Between them, they have been deployed to a variety of locations hit by natural disasters, including Puerto Rico, which was recently devastated by Hurricane Maria.

"It's good people and good work," Wheeler said. "It's needed work. You're also helping the medical teams in those areas, letting them take a breath."

"They are part of the disaster, too," said Hayes. "And people, a lot of the time, forget that."

As two of the 65 members on the Connecticut One team, the nurses are part of the federal system of emergency management — per-diem federal employees, somewhat like a national guard of medicine. These units can see upwards of 50 to 75 patients a day for suturing, broken bones, cardiac issues, infection control and other injuries. With their speciality in pediatrics, the two women often work with children and infants.

"With all the training and support we get at Children's, it really bolsters our pediatric knowledge and we can bring that to our team in the field," said Wheeler.

Hayes, a team commander since 2006, coordinates the set-up and distribution of services. The National Disaster Medical System goes in to lend care and support to existing facilities as well as provide disaster-related services, like toxicology, contagious disease management, water testing and contaminate monitoring.

Everyone from the surgeons to the administrative staff work to build the tents and infrastructure, said Hayes. It's not unusual to work 22-hour days, and rotate in and out of sleeping cots. The high-stress situation is made all the more complicated by the lack of toilets and running water. Sanitation becomes a top priority in the fight against spreading disease. But no one is complaining.

"Everyone is in the same boat," Hayes said. "When we're there we're living in the disaster, too. When people see how far we've come to help they are overwhelmingly grateful. It just tears me up."

The deployments are high-stakes ventures. The teams are heavily staffed with security and U.S. Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents as looting and risk are part of the job. According to Hayes, desperate people are looking for supplies, desperate drug addicts are looking for medicines and the National Disaster Medical System must protect their stocks, as well as their people.

"They are always right next to us keeping us safe," said Hayes.

Besides disaster medical relief, they are also called on as a precautionary measure for events like the presidential inauguration and State of the Union address. With so many chances to work together, the National Disaster Medical System team is quite close.

"It's heartwarming, the people you get to work with," said Hayes. "You develop relationships that often last a lifetime."

"It's a close-knit group of people spread out around the country and we all look out for each other," added Wheeler.

Their home base also looks out for them, as other members of the critical care transport team "pick up the slack" when the women are deployed.

"CCMC is really great about the time," said Hayes.

Wheeler and Hayes are always happy to return home where they are tasked with picking up pediatric patients from smaller hospitals to bring them to Hartford for care, or taking CCMC patients for special treatment at hospitals in Boston or at Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield.

They are the ambassadors between hospitals, explained Hayes, making sure children are safe and medically stable throughout the ride. That goes for the parents, as well, who are often in their own state of stress over their child's well-being.

"At CCMC we make everything family-centered," Hayes said. "Somehow, we include the parents in their child's care. If it means having them ride in the front of the ambulance we'll do it."

It appears civil service is a family tradition for both women.

Hayes' family features a succession of firefighters, including her husband and son. Another son is a special operations marine. They share skills and supplies; her son recently sent her a care package of specialty military bedding so she could take it with her to Puerto Rico.

Wheeler also comes from a family of emergency workers. One son works in hospital admissions, another is going to be a firefighter and emergency medical technician and her husband is the emergency management director for the town of Harwinton.

"There's definitely a calling," said Hayes. "It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done."

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