METETI, PANAMA --
You won’t have to look hard to find numerous accounts of heroes who stated their mind went blank during stressful situations and their bringing a person to fall back solely on the training they received whether it be a first-responder, lifeguard or, in this case, U.S. military members.
The day of May 2, 2018, started different for Master Sgt. Reina Blake, Senior Airman Ariel Thomas and Special Agent Alexandra Garced, currently deployed to Meteti, Panama as part of the Exercise New Horizons 2018 program. The Airmen had volunteered to assist with construction project efforts. Blake is the 346th Air Expeditionary Group Office of the Legal Advisor superintendent, Thomas a medical technician and Garced an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent. For this 346 AEG team, pouring concrete into walls already made for a day that was out of the ordinary.
On the drive back from an afternoon of construction work however, the day took a wild turn. Blake, Thomas and Garced got into a vehicle and began the drive back to their hotel.
“We were about 10 minutes into our trip back when we saw a group of local Panamanians gathered on the side of the street,” Blake said. “So we stopped to see if everything was ok.”
The group of locals were gathered, looking over the side of a bridge. The Airmen pulled over and ran to investigate.
“Master Sgt. Blake ran over first,” Thomas said. “As I was walking over, she called out and asked if I was a medic.”
As the situation unfolded, the Airmen gathered that a local woman, who was intoxicated, had apparently jumped off the nearly 30-foot-high bridge.
“One of the gentleman said she jumped,” Blake said. “As I peered over the side of the bridge, I saw a woman laying her back.”
In an instant and without hesitation, they knew they had to act.
“We found a route down below the bridge,” Blake said. “All three of us went down. Senior Airman Thomas is a medic, so she led us through what to do.”
Thomas said her mind went blank, and her training kicked in.
“I jumped in and held C-Spine, making sure her head didn’t move because she could have had an injury,” Thomas said. C-spine is a first responder technique, used to prevent a patient’s neck from moving to avoid further injury.”
“Thomas stabilized her neck and Blake and I held her body,” Garced said. “Thomas tried taking a pulse but was unable to at first. Thomas asked me to stabilize her neck so Thomas could focus on finding a pulse, so I did.”
During their initial examination of the woman, they didn’t spot any blood and began deciding what other actions they could take.
“At one point she started making a gagging sound,” Blake said. “The locals told us she had been drinking, so we thought she was trying to throw up. Airman Thomas and I supported her neck and the three of us put her on her side, to keep her from chocking on her own vomit.”
The woman faded in and out of consciousness sometimes seeming unaware of what was happening and other times acting very belligerent and yelling—all while Thomas, Blake and Garced talked to her, attempting to keep her calm.
“She didn’t speak English, so I was glad Master Sgt. Blake was there and was able to translate,” Thomas said.
They waited with the woman for approximately 40 minutes before an ambulance arrived. Other Airmen who drove to the scene during the said “without them, the outcome would have been very different.”
“I don’t know if things would have ended as they did without us,” Blake said.
Both Thomas and Blake give credit of their actions to the training they have received in the Air Force.
“Deferring to Airman Thomas’ training was a huge part of it,” Blake said. “Keeping her stable was common knowledge to all of us and keeping her airways clear was also common knowledge. We rely on our training, and part of that training is to follow the lead of the person with the know-how. We had a medic with us and we were fortunate in that regard.”
Although Thomas is not typically a first responder, all the training she has had in her medical career prepared her to save a life if needed.
“I went straight to what I was taught.” Thomas said. “I am glad we were there when she started puking, because we were able to turn her on her side otherwise she could have aspirated. I am super glad we were there at that moment because that could be life or death.”
Garced echoed her thoughts, grateful for the timing of the situation.
“Honestly, we were just there at the right place, right time,” Garced said. “If we had been there too late, she could’ve choked. If we had been there too early, we wouldn’t have even noticed a crowd, which is what sparked our attention in the first place.”
Blake is currently deployed from Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, Thomas is deployed from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, and Garced is deployed from Davis-Monthan, Air Force Base in Arizona.
The Airmen earned great praise from the 346 AEG commander, Col. Darren Ewing.
“These Airmen truly went above and beyond, and absolutely embodied what it means to be a member of the U.S. military,” he said. “I am so proud to have these outstanding individuals on our team. These situations are exactly why we train how we do, and thanks to their courage and training, they saved a life.”