FORT BLISS, Texas -- It was another assignment for Pfcs. Marco Garcia and Jovany Castillo, two Soldiers inching toward completing the second phase of the Army's Practical Nurse Course at William Beaumont Army Medical Center. The basic task of measuring vital signs of patients at a local hospital was the assignment, an important but mundane task for health care professionals. Little did they know, their training would be tested in an unforeseen way.
Castillo and Garcia had been together throughout their Army journey since enlisting in October 2017. Together they had endured Army basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, went on to Advanced Individual Training for the first phase of the Practical Nurse Course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas and ended up at Fort Bliss, Texas for the final phase of the course before arriving to their first permanent assignment.
Working alongside each other, the two Soldiers made their rounds through patients, mostly children, checking temperatures, blood pressure and pulses.
"We were going around the department, and went into one room where a [toddler] was sitting up in a chair, watching TV eating cereal," explained Castillo, 25 and native of Huntington Beach, California. "Mom was right behind her on her phone, so we asked if it was alright to get the [patient's] vitals."
After consenting, the two began recording the patient's vitals as they had practiced dozens of times before.
"One thing we're taught is to interact with the patient, even if it's an infant," said Garcia, 26 and native of Spring, Texas. "[The patient] was placing a lot of cereal in their mouth, so we let the mom know but said [the toddler] was okay."
Moments later, while the two Soldiers were still checking the patient, the child began to gasp for air, as the excess cereal had apparently obstructed her airway, springing the two Soldiers to action.
"For a second I thought 'Is this really happening?' but right away I went to the baby, while [Garcia] went to go get help," said Castillo. "I was in shock a little, but got over it right away."
"We looked at each other and [Castillo] went over to help," said Garcia. "Since he was helping, I went to get a nurse. I trusted him, I knew he was going to do what he needed to do."
According to Castillo, the patient's mother had picked up the patient and began tapping the back of the patient in a manner that would have further lodged the obstruction into the trachea, so he instructed her on proper infant choking procedures while assisting the child.
"[The mother] had the baby, I just adjusted her hands and showed her the correct position, then I started tapping the baby's back," said Castillo. "Honestly, those were the longest three or four seconds of my life because I was so scared for the little baby. I kept on [patting her back] until I finally heard her take a breath and that's when I was relieved."
"When I got back the baby was crying the nurses checked on the baby and made sure everything was okay," said Garcia.
"It was quick thinking on [the Soldiers'] part," said Robyn Gerbitz, a Registered Nurse and one of the Practical Nurse Course Instructors at WBAMC. "They took the initiative immediately, we could have had a very bad [outcome]."
One of Gerbitz' lessons for new Soldiers includes introducing them to the mantra, "respiratory leads to cardiac," defining the link between pulmonary and cardiac arrests due to buildup of carbonic acid and lowered oxygen levels in the bloodstream.
"We do a lot of hands-on work in clinical rotations," said Gerbitz. "These guys are quick thinkers, I'm very proud of them."
Whether Garcia and Castillo's quick reaction was a reflection of their medical training kicking in is not certain, since the two Soldiers are still weeks away from completing the rigorous 58-week curriculum.
"Instructors make sure we understand and are well equipped to deal with such situations," said Castillo. "For me, it kind of just happened and I'm happy the way things turned out, it was a rush."
Before joining the Army, Castillo was going to college while working at a fast food restaurant and Garcia worked with produce at a grocery store. Neither Soldier ever thought they would be saving someone's life just a year into their military service.
"It's definitely something I joined to do, to help people," said Garcia. "You learn something new every day. This is a stepping stone for sure."
After ensuring the baby was stable, the pair just went about their duties and continued checking other patients' vitals.
"I had just walked in and the nurses told me about the situation," said Gerbitz. "The director [of the local hospital] recognized the Soldiers right then and there. They reacted humbly, went about their duties. I believe wherever they go, they're going to make good nurses."