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USU nursing students saved lives, receive medal

Image of Military personnel during their graduation ceremony. During his graduation ceremony last week, Navy Lt. Christopher Bunag was recognized for his recent heroic efforts (Courtesy photo)

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Nursing in the Military Health System

On April 13, 2019, Army Maj. Crystal Kelley and Navy Lt. Christopher Bunag had stopped at a rest station on the side of Highway 62 in El Paso, Texas.

The two Uniformed Services University (USU) Graduate School of Nursing students found themselves in this remote area, surrounded mostly by desert, on their way to do some sight-seeing. It was a day off from their clinical rotation at the Mendoza Pediatric Clinic at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Texas.

It had been a day off in the midst of a two-week clinical rotation, as part of the GSN's Doctor of Nursing Practice/Family Nurse Practitioner program. The two students were off to explore the Carlsbad Caverns, about two hours away, and had made a pit stop to get out of the rain. They were just making their way back out of the rest station, ready to get back on the road, when they heard a loud blast near the front of the building. They walked outside to investigate and came upon the gruesome scene of a collision between a minivan and a pick-up truck. The pick-up truck appeared to have drifted into a nearby parking space, while the minivan had slid into a pole in front of the rest stop. The minivan was heavily damaged and smoke was billowing out of its engine.

Without hesitation, the students took action, as Kelley directed a bystander to call 911 and stay on the line, while Bunag began to do a quick triage, assessing the passengers to see who was in the most need of help.

At that time, they heard a woman yell from the van, "Help my baby." Bunag and another bystander quickly reached inside the van through a broken window, and the mother handed them her young child, who was unresponsive. Bunag instructed the bystander to take the child a safe distance away from the scene, under an awning, sheltered from the rain.

Headshot picture of Army Maj. Crystal Kelley
Army Maj. Crystal Kelley was on a clinical rotation in El Paso, Texas, where she found herself testing her life-saving skills. She was recently recognized for her heroic response during a 2019 traffic accident when she was a captain (USU Photo).

In addition to the child, there were eight other casualties that required medical attention. Of those, two from the truck were in stable condition, while two in the van had received fatal injuries.

The rest of the passengers in the van were suffering from serious lacerations and still needed help to exit the vehicle. Kelley assisted with those casualties, as Bunag rushed back to care for the small child. They moved the child inside the rest stop building, to continue CPR out of the wind and rain.

Knowing that they were easily 30 to 45 minutes away from the nearest town, and it would be some time before emergency response crews could arrive, Kelley instructed another bystander, who identified herself as a registered nurse, to continue helping Bunag with CPR on the child, so that she could go back to checking on the other casualties, consoling the family from the van, and directing bystanders to stay back.

While still administering CPR on the child, Bunag got on the line with the 911 operator. He and Kelley then began coordinating emergency evacuation by ambulance and air evacuation for the child. They remained on the scene until emergency responders arrived.

Although they did all that they could to provide critical care that day to those who were seriously injured, they later learned that the young child did not survive.

Fortunately, the students were in the right place at the right time. Had they not been there and taken such swift action, this tragic accident could have resulted in even more fatalities.

Headshot Photo of Navy Lt. Christopher Bunag
Navy Lt. Christopher Bunag was on a clinical rotation in El Paso, Texas, where he found himself testing his life-saving skills. He was recently recognized for his heroic efforts (USU Photo).

"What we thought was a quick stop, resulted in a life-changing experience for all involved," Kelley said.

Bunag shared similar sentiments.

"We acted on what we believed to be the usual and expected actions for us as soldiers and sailors," Bunag said. "It is a testament to our training, instincts, and desire for beneficence that embody our professions."

Recently, USU leadership award both Kelley and Bunag with the Joint Service Commendation Medal for their heroic actions that day.

"We are delighted, but also not surprised, that students from the GSN, or USU for that matter, respond selflessly to help others in need," said Army Col. Craig Budinich, the commandant/assistant dean for Student Affairs in USU's Nursing School. "In the end, any public recognition received pales in comparison to the pride Major Kelley and Lieutenant Bunag must feel knowing their actions were a manifestation of the core Service values that they live by every day."

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Last Updated: April 25, 2022
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