Nursing alumni meet at Air Force flight school

Marquette alumni Meghan Stapleton and Maddie Gillette Mills.

The friendship between two Marquette College of Nursing graduates and practicing flight nurses started innocuously: with an offhand comment from a flight instructor about plans to start a March Madness pool.

Meghan Stapleton, a Class of 2018 graduate, mentioned that she would be cheering for Marquette. That’s when Maddie Gillette Mills, her flight school crewmate of two months and a 2011 graduate, piped up that she was also a Marquette nurse.

“I was thinking ‘I knew we were hitting it off for a reason,’” Mills says. “We started hanging out ever since then. You form relationships quickly at flight school because you’re with the same people all day, every day.”

That camaraderie is useful in the high-pressure world of flight nursing, where nurses trade hospital wards for airplane fuselages. Stapleton lives in the Nashville, Tennessee area and her unit, the 94th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, is based out of Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Atlanta. Mills is a Captain with the 137th Air National Guard based in Oklahoma City, but lives in California with her husband, who is on active duty in the Navy. Long before they ever met each other, both nurses knew they wanted to pursue an unconventional path.

“I knew I wanted to do something with the military even back when I was applying to college,” Stapleton says. “I thought it would be too much to do nursing and ROTC [reserve officer training corps] at the same time, but I absolutely wanted something after graduation. It would be a great chance to give back to our service numbers.”

“I just love military patient care,” says Mills, who did Naval ROTC. “”Out of all the things our planes transport, our most precious cargo is the American soldier, sailor and Marine. I want to bring them home with honor.”

Both Stapleton and Mills started their Aeromedical Evacuation Initial Qualification for Flight Nurses training with 32 other candiates in February. Instructors separated that group into squads of five for the duration of the training, which covered best practices for delivering care in everything from C-130 fixed wing turboprops to transport helicopters.

It’s easy to imagine the differences between piloting a helicopter at hovering height and a jet at cruising altitude, but most people don’t know the experience is just as different from a flight nurse’s perspective.

“With the helicopter, there are three people in there: me, the medic and the pilot,” Mills says. “That’s a lot more of a critical care situation because you’re often the first one on the scene. In a fixed wing aircraft, you’ll have a critical care air transport team and usually, the patient is more stable.”

Air nurses are often asked to treat patients that need to be in an operating room or intensive care unit, but do not have access to one, which means the caregiver must have top-notch clinical skills. Even with a stable patient, nurses practicing in the rear of an aircraft don’t have nearly the same amount of lifesaving equipment at their disposal that they would in a medical facility.

“When you’re in the hospital, you have everything you need,” Stapleton says. “We don’t have a lot with us in the air. Learning about how to manage those situations was important and Marquette did a good job of preparing me for that.”

The College of Nursing places an emphasis on training nurses to care for veterans. Through programs like its Veterans Affairs Nursing Academic Partnership (VANAP), students get hands-on clinical experience with service members and are given priority placement for post-graduation VA positions.

Although Mills and Stapleton did their clinicals in civilian hospitals, Mills expanded her veteran’s affairs knowledge at Marquette through ROTC.

“People would always joke that ROTC was like its own sorority or fraternity because it helped you meet so many people,” Mills says. “The emergency room experience I had combined with ROTC was great preparation to becoming an air nurse.”

Even though Marquette did not teach either nurse the midair portions of their job descriptions, the College of Nursing’s core principles synced well with the skills needed to be an effective air nurse. MUCN asks its students to be engaged, critical thinkers; nurses that do more than simply look at a patient’s chart and administer a medication.

“Anybody can order a bunch of lab tests and read the results, but we’re taught at Marquette to think ahead,” Mills says. “The patient might be fine now, but what could happen next? I gained those skills in my clinical placement, which definitely pushed me. I felt like I did actual nursing as a student, instead of watching people do nursing.”

The idea of Cura Personalis, a core value of both College of Nursing and the university, also plays into the responsibilities of flight nursing. Military patients often maintain a sense of stoicism while undergoing treatment, such that it’s difficult to tell if they are in pain. Those that have seen combat may have extra mental health struggles to contend with.

Acknowledging the patient’s lived experiences, especially in the middle of a stressful time, can be key to maintaining their health.

“You have to care about what you’re doing and the people you’re taking care of,” Stapleton says. “That’s the biggest thing I left Marquette with: a need to give back and Be the Difference for other people.”

Stapleton and Mills are no longer in the same crew: Stapleton is now undergoing qualifying training and Mills is back in California. However, the two still text frequently, trading stories about their time at Marquette and plans for their future in the sky.

“I loved my time at Marquette, and I wish I could go back and do it all again,” Mills says.