Updated: May 26
December 19, 2021
Christopher Heiss, an anesthetist with Geisinger, long desired to serve the U.S. in a uniformed capacity but his career in medicine ultimately kept him from joining the military.
However, Heiss, 32, of Bloomsburg, eyed serving with a distinguished federal medical unit and after several tries, has been chosen to join the National Disaster Medical System’s Trauma and Critical Care Team. He’ll be sworn in this January.
“For me, it’s me playing a part that I grew up around,” Heiss said, referring to relatives who served the armed forces. “It just so happens the service I would provide is very unique to the skill set that I have. Everything I’ve learned throughout my career, it’s all right there.”
Heiss’s career began as an emergency medical technician. He then studied to become a paramedic and later worked as a flight paramedic in Western Pennsylvania. In time, he earned a degree as a registered nurse. He served as an intensive care unit nurse at Geisinger before becoming a certified registered nurse anesthetist in 2019.
In 2020, Heiss, a husband and father of one, helped develop an intubation shield deployed throughout Geisinger’s system to help protect frontline workers from contracting COVID-19.
Over the years, Heiss said he tried to catch the attention of the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), which is operated through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. About 80 health care professionals belong to the NDMS Trauma and Critical Care Team (TCCT). The size and credentials necessary make it a difficult job to obtain.
Members of the National Disaster Medical System are deployed to national and international emergencies like natural disasters, public health emergencies and terrorist attacks. They lead or supplement medical care and other emergency services when resources are stressed or compromised.
Along with TCCTs, NDMS consists of Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT) — several of which recently deployed following deadly tornadoes in Kentucky and elsewhere in the Midwest — along with Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Teams, Victim Information Center Teams and National Veterinary Response Teams.
TCCT team members include physicians in critical care and emergency medicine, surgeons, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, nurse anesthetists, paramedics, respiratory therapists, radiology technologists, surgical technologists and pharmacists.
“The first-in people who could care for critically ill and injured people,” as Heiss described them.
“We are strictly a federal asset. We serve the president, the vice president and any associated diplomats,” Heiss said, noting that despite being federal assets, they work with state and local professionals.
Teams range from 9 to 48 members each. They’re tasked to conduct specific trauma-related tasks at field hospitals and established facilities such as providing critical care, surgery, advanced trauma life support and much more.
Heiss once felt like he’d never join the TCCT. In February 2020, he and two other Geisinger professionals published a scholarly article in the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology Journal. It caught the attention of a TCCT member who reached out to Heiss. In time, doubts washed away as Heiss was invited to join.
“Geisinger is committed to supporting all our employees while volunteering in the Uniformed Services. We’re proud that our benefits make it easy for employees to serve both our community and nation,” said Chris Grill, program manager for military and veteran affairs for Geisinger.
There are eight CRNA’s on the TCCT and, Heiss believes, just two in Pennsylvania. He’ll remain employed with Geisinger and leaves for up to two weeks at a time when assigned a deployment.
Heiss said his diverse career portfolio prepared him for this. He’s worked in the streets and in hospital settings, handling sometimes uncontrolled and chaotic situations and remaining calm and on task. He said he feels prepared to join TCCT and thanked Geisinger for its support.
“It’s not really a matter of if but when some type of global event occurs and I need to leave suddenly,” Heiss said.