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Determined to Serve: Critical care nurse joins Reserve at age 50

Capt. Jennifer McGuigan, left, recently joined the Air Force Reserve at age 50.

Capt. Jennifer McGuigan works with her medical coworker, Iris Appenrodt, July 7, 2020, at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. In facing a shortage of critical care nurses, the Air Force Reserve granted an age waiver for McGuigan, who is 50 years old. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFNS) -- In 12-plus years of working at a Veteran’s Affairs Hospital, Capt. Jennifer McGuigan has heard many heart-wrenching stories from family members of those in her care as a critical care nurse.

She remembers one story in particular that changed her life and inspired her to join the Air Force Reserve at the age of 50.

“Many years ago, I cared for a Vietnam veteran who had suffered cardiac arrest at home,” McGuigan said. “The first responders were able to get his heart beating, but he never did breathe on his own. He was brought to our ICU (intensive care unit), and we cared for him for about a week until his family decided to withdraw life-sustaining treatments. While he was in our ICU, his father, who was a World War II veteran, shared with me how difficult it was for him when his son volunteered to serve in Vietnam. He knew firsthand what his son would experience, and even though it broke his heart, he felt he had to honor his son’s decision and support his desire to serve.”

It was stories like this one that made McGuigan feel particularly close to the families of the veterans in her care. Her children were only 8 and 9 at the time, but his words forever changed how she viewed the families of the veterans under her care.

“My kids are now old enough to join the military themselves, and even though they have not, I think of that World War II vet often,” she said. “I want to be able to help care for those serving our country for all of those parents who have had to struggle through the same situation as that World War II vet.”

With her children grown, McGuigan decided the time was right to do something about her desire to help those families. So, at the age of 48, she set out to become a critical care nurse in the Air Force Reserve.

“I had heard from friends in the Reserve that there was a need for critical care nurses,” McGuigan said. “My husband served in the Air Force for 10 years, and loved it. When we discussed it, he was extremely supportive and excited that I wanted to serve in the Reserve.”

Next, she had to tell her kids of her plans, and to her surprise, they were equally supportive.

The Air Force Reserve does indeed have a dire need for critical care nurses. These nurses have an important mission during wartime and have also been in high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The need for critical care nurses was highlighted during the response to COVID-19,” said Col. Sherry Hemby, Air Force Reserve Command’s command nurse and career field manager. “Many patients diagnosed with COVID-19 had difficulty breathing and were placed on ventilators to assist in their recovery. Critical care nurses, with their amazing attention to detail, were needed to watch every minute. They assessed changes in their patient’s condition and reacted with the most skilled care.

“They pulled patients through the COVID crisis. They held the hands of their patients when their family members could not, encouraging and cheering their patients on to fight for recovery.”

A retired Air Force colonel recommended McGuigan to Hemby and the command nurse reached out to the critical care nurse.

“I wanted to make sure she realized what was required for the job,” Hemby said. “When we talked about deployments, required training and physical demands, she was all in. She told me that fitness had always been important to her and she had no doubt she could pass the fitness requirements.”

Master Sgt. Felicia Mintz, an AFRC health professions recruiter, was McGuigan’s recruiter for most of the process.

“Capt. McGuigan was wonderful to work with,” Mintz said. “She always had a positive attitude and was on top of anything I needed from her. The biggest challenge was the age-waiver process.

“Many times, the older leads are already in management/administrative positions and don’t meet the hands-on experience needed,” Mintz said. “As a Reservist, you need to be able to maintain your critical care certifications through your civilian employment. If you’re not working in a critical care environment, you will not be able to do this.”

Another challenge is being physically qualified through a Military Entrance Processing Station, or MEPS.

“It doesn’t matter what age the applicant is, they have to meet the same physical requirements for entry as an 18 or 20-year-old,” Mintz said.

“The process of joining was a bit like running a race,” McGuigan said. “A lot of it is mental endurance. Going to MEPS was one of the bigger challenges. If I remember correctly, the paperwork went back and forth at least three times before I had my appointment. My favorite part of MEPS was when I was referred to as ‘a person of advanced age.’ That made me laugh out loud.”

In total, the process that led to McGuigan’s oath took more than a year and a half, but she never wavered in her desire to serve.

She was sworn into the Reserve June 6 via video teleconference. After 18 months of striving to join the Reserve, the day had finally arrived.

“After all the ups and down, I think there was a part of me that wasn’t entirely sure it would happen,” she said. “After I took the oath and everyone started calling me captain, I think I giggled every time. It was such an amazing honor that Col. Hamby was able to do my oath by Zoom meeting and that my family and friends were able to be there.”

Mintz found inspiration working with McGuigan.

“Her determination is extremely motivating,” Mintz said. “Capt. McGuigan is a great example to the younger generation about perseverance. There was never any guarantee she was going to be able to join, but her mindset was to keep moving forward in the process until she either couldn’t go anymore or she was able to oath in.”

Now that McGuire is officially a Reserve Airman, she is ready to do whatever is asked of her.

“I don’t have expectations other than to serve where I am most needed and where my skill set can be of the most help,” she said. “I will proudly serve in whatever way I can.”