A Career Path Less Taken: How a Former Military RT is Still Helping Wounded Soldiers

Brendan Beely, BSRC, RRT, lost his mom to lung cancer when he was just a boy, and it created a great deal of uncertainty about what life would hold for him too. His search for some stability steered him to the U.S. Army when he was 18, and he quickly requested a role that would lead to job security and prospects for success.

He thought health care or IT would be a reliable way to go, but the Army had other plans. Before it he knew it, he was heading off to train as an infantryman paratrooper instead.

But good things do eventually come. Four years after jumping out of planes in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, he met the career that would be for him.

“When I re-enlisted in the Army, it was to change jobs away from the infantry,” Beely said. “The only medical job available to me at the time was what the Army calls ‘Respiratory Specialist’ training.”

Drinking from the hose

The year was 2005, and the training program he entered was the intense, nine-month program located in San Antonio, TX. Beely calls it “drinking from the hose.” Five months of the program consisted of didactic classes from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Then it was four months of clinical rotations at Brooke Army Medical Center, again for eight hours a day.

“We would absorb as much as we could, test on the chapters, and brain dump and move on,” Beely said. “We often had up to three tests a week, each often covering a full chapter in the pivotal Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care, and with hands-on practical exercises mixed in.”

He graduated from the Army program and then went to the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (ISR) in San Antonio, which houses the Army Burn Unit. No stranger to planes, he soon became not just an RT but a flight RT as well.

Aubree KuenyThanks to the U.S. Army, Brenden Beely, left, went from jumping out of planes to caring for wounded soldiers.

“I logged numerous missions transporting mechanically ventilated burn patients that had been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq back from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to the ISR,” Beely said. “These missions were between 11-14 hours in duration, often direct flights from Germany to Texas.”

Beely says those experiences cemented many of the clinical ideals and beliefs he holds to this day.

“In the back of an aircraft, you only have what you brought with you, and thus your mindset of what is necessary vs. what is nice to have is forced to change,” he said. “You must plan for emergencies, but space and weight are limited; thus, you must also be able to improvise and work as part of a team.”

He got the chance to show his creative side during his time with the ISR as well, teaming up with another therapist to invent a new endotracheal tube bite block that was eventually patented by the Army and licensed by a startup company called Surgicure Technologies. According to Beely, the company hopes to bring the device to the market sometime this year.

From transport therapist to research coordinator

From the ISR, Beely went to Hawaii, where he spent time working as a Tripler Army Medical Center therapist. During that deployment, he was introduced to neonatal care and eventually ended up in a leadership position for the transport team.

“That team had an area of responsibility of three-fourths of the globe, as the Pacific Rim is vast,” he said. One highlight of his time at Tripler came when he served as the lead therapist on the two longest adult ECMO flights ever recorded. The mission involved moving a critically ill Marine from Okinawa, Japan, to an adult ECMO center in Iowa.

Aubree KuenyBrendan Beely was the lead therapist on what were, at the time, the two longest EMCO transports on record.

After a stint at a combat support hospital in Fort Hood, TX, Beely was ready to leave active duty.

“I reached out to a contact in the research division of the ISR, and fortuitously, she was leaving to have a child, so I was able to take her position,” he said. He credits the opportunity to his earlier connection with the ISR.

“When I was stationed at the burn unit years previously, the research team I now work with needed help setting up and managing their ventilators in the animal ICU . . . I would go help them and teach the team some tips and tricks, and the boss remembered me,” Beely said. “He was willing to take a chance on what I had shown him years previously, and I have been fortunate enough to grow into my role and have made research my long-term career.”

His official employer is The Geneva Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization focusing on facilitating military-focused medical research. As a research coordinator for the Autonomous Reanimation and Evacuation Program, or AREVA, he provides the administrative support needed to enable scientists to carry out studies that will ultimately add to the evidence on the best ways to care for soldiers injured in combat.

Aubree KuenyNow at the Geneva Foundation, Beely handles the administrative work needed to move critical military research forward.

“We focus primarily on extracorporeal therapies and their application – ECMO devices, dialysis systems, etc. – and novel biomarkers to guide care, as the molecular science of injury changes over time,” Beely said.

He cites a 2012 study suggesting 75% of combat wounds are deemed “non-survivable” as the motivation for their work.

“Our group focuses on the 75%,” Beely said.

Never say never

Beely says the most significant challenge he faces as a research coordinator is keeping up with the administrative burden of research. There are quarterly reports to file, supplies to order, shifts to schedule, grants to write, and papers to publish.

“As our work is publicly funded, we are always aware that we are spending other people’s money, and doing so efficiently and ethically always comes with the associated paperwork, and my role largely is to do that paperwork,” he said.

It’s all worth it, though. Seeing how the studies they conduct are changing the future of medicine and critical care is priceless.

“We definitely do not have all the answers, and we often find more questions than we answer, but I have seen our efforts being applied clinically and know that we are making progress,” he said.

What would Brendan Beely say to someone who might like to take on a similar role? Never say never would be an excellent place to start.

“My best advice is to maintain an open mind and try everything offered to you,” he said. “Had I been unwilling to go to the research division to help out when I was a fairly new therapist, I would not be where I am today. When I was hired in my current position, I hoped that I would be able to do the work, as I had next to zero experience doing research. I would often find myself answering my boss’ inquiries with, ‘I’ve never done that before, and I don’t know anything about it, but I’ll look into it and try.'”

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