The COVID-19 pandemic has tested health care professionals all over the world in ways few could have fathomed even just two years ago.
Christina Broomell, PA-C, faced those same challenges, but on an extreme scale, while deployed more than 6,000 miles from home as an aeromedical physician assistant in the Pennsylvania National Guard.
Capt. Broomell, a physician assistant with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health (LGH) Physicians Trauma & Acute Care Surgery, recently earned the national Spurgeon H. Neel U.S. Army Distinguished Flight Surgeon award for her exemplary leadership efforts in response to COVID-19 during her nearly year-long deployment to the Middle East.
According to her nomination for the award, which is sanctioned by the Society of U.S. Army Flight Surgeons, Broomell demonstrated “unwavering passion for Army Aviation Medicine” and a “consistence of excellence” in performing critical duties far above her position, which included her leadership in testing, contact tracing, and additional efforts to ensure the safety of her fellow soldiers.
Broomell joined the National Guard for the same reason she became a physician assistant: She felt a strong sense of duty to step up and help others. She found that her recent deployment, which was her first, challenged her both professionally and personally in unexpected ways.
At the time of her high school graduation, Broomell hadn’t even considered a career in medicine. Guidance from her mom and other mentors — as well as a day spent shadowing a physician assistant — helped her realize that she found the greatest sense of purpose from taking care of others.
Broomell worked as a physician assistant in internal medicine for more than a decade before joining Trauma & Acute Care Surgery at LGH in 2017. As a trauma PA, her daily responsibilities include managing patients in the Trauma-Neuro Intensive Care Unit and medical/surgical floors at Lancaster General Hospital, assisting in the operating room, performing bedside procedures, and seeing patients for follow-up care or new consults at the outpatient trauma practice.
“We treat patients who have been seriously injured in accidents, shootings, or other traumatic events,” she said. “I really like how involved we can be in a patient’s care. For example, we might stay in the Intensive Care Unit all night long, trying to stabilize a patient.”
In 2019, Broomell took on a leadership role at the outpatient clinic, where patients receive care following a hospital stay or surgery. Kelly Bonneville, PA-C, the trauma practice’s lead advanced practitioner, said Broomell is known for her teamwork, positive attitude, and taking initiative to help educate her colleagues on the latest research.
“Christina is very focused and hard-working,” Bonneville said. “She likes to see results and get things done. She’s also very empathetic and spends a great deal time with our patients and their families, answering all of their questions.”
Several of Broomell’s friends and family members have served in the military, including some who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues following deployments. She always felt a duty to serve her country, and hearing their stories — and wanting to help others like them — ultimately inspired her to join the National Guard in 2014.
Her commitment involves one weekend a month, as well as two weeks of training each year. In addition to logging flight hours aboard Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, her role requires mastering physical challenges, such as swimming while wearing full flight gear and freeing herself from an aircraft that has overturned in the water.
On her deployment with the 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, which began in August 2020, Broomell was stationed primarily in Kuwait, with visits to Iraq and Syria. Her determination and empathy again served her well as she provided medical support to her fellow service members, treating common injuries and illnesses, and performing required physical exams.
“We had to make some difficult decisions, and those decisions could make us someone’s best friend or worst enemy,” she said. “I had to send some pilots home for chronic medical conditions that got exacerbated so they couldn’t fly anymore.”
But many of Broomell’s greatest challenges, of course, involved COVID-19. And according to her award nomination, submitted by Brigade Surgeon Maj. Wesley Hicken, she proved to be a “pivotal asset” in response to those challenges, displaying “professionalism and dedication to upholding the integrity of Aviation medicine” and distinguishing herself as an exceptional aeromedical physician assistant.
During COVID-19 outbreaks within her brigade, Broomell ensured that contact tracing and quarantine protocols were followed, and service members who became infected received adequate treatment, despite the limited availability of medical resources. She also contributed to writing safety guidelines for the air transport of COVID-19 patients and led more than 20 medical trainings in trauma and critical care amid the challenges of pandemic restrictions.
Broomell’s trauma colleagues back in Lancaster supported her by sending care packages filled with her favorite candy, good coffee, and pretty things to make her rather basic accommodations look a little more cheerful. They also designed T-shirts to wear in her honor around the hospital.
“This was the first time someone on our team was deployed, and we were very proud of Christina,” Bonneville said. “We were obviously a little scared for her too, and we counted down the days until she got back. We were absolutely thrilled to hear about her award.”
Broomell, who returned home in May, found her deployment to be more physically and mentally difficult than she ever imagined. Being on call 24/7, with few days off, was exhausting. Coping with the challenges of being one of just a few women in her brigade was tough but ultimately led her to experience personal growth, she said.
Now that she’s back home, she makes time for yoga, running, baking, and doing house projects, having learned firsthand the importance of a healthy work-life balance. She also gained a personal understanding of how much simple words of support can mean to a service member who is away from home.