Peter Hairston, PA-C, Lead APC at WellStar Cobb Hospital, has practiced as a PA for over 20 years and joined ApolloMD in 2009. Originally from Mississippi, Hairston graduated with a degree in exercise science with the intention of working in physical therapy and headed to Georgia for an internship with a sports medicine group. Once introduced to the PA realm, he channeled his commitment to patient care onto that track. Nine years ago, Hairston added military service to his duties when he joined the 187th Air National Guard and found a way to serve the country while continuing to serve patients. Now as Lieutenant Colonel, Hairston continues to use his medical expertise for national disaster relief efforts.
For Peter Hairston, military service stands as a family tradition he hoped to continue. His father served as did previous generations before him. For Hairston the timing and prospects didn’t align until 2012 when a respected colleague, Dr. Henry Heard, presented a new pathway to uniform. “I got a wild hare and joined the military,” Hairston declares.
“I was able to join the Alabama National Guard with five other guys from Georgia, all PAs. It just happened to be in Alabama, they were standing up a specialized unit for disaster relief, and they needed medical providers.”
As one of the commanders of the unit, Dr. Heard also hails from Georgia, teaching on faculty in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at Mercer University. In that capacity, Hairston considers Dr. Heard a professional mentor and credits his recruitment on that existing relationship:
“Dr. Heard commanded the medical group of the 187th and as that unit started building up, he was instrumental in saying ‘Hey, I can get some medical guys.’ We all joined together at the same time. These are five guys, all about the same age, all with similar experiences, and we’ve had an awesome experience. We teach each other, we encourage each other, we drive each other. I’m a better PA because of those guys being in the Guard and the National Guard training. I’ve gotten to do so many different courses all over the United States. I never would have gotten that anywhere else. ApolloMD has been really great with me on accommodating this and I appreciate it.”
Hairston reflects on his steps in the journey before joining this unit. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit his native state of Mississippi and wiped out coastal communities, Hairston volunteered for clean-up assistance.
“It was the most devastation I’ve ever seen in my life,” he recalls. “I wasn’t down there in a medical capacity, but I was thinking about how anyone with my qualifications could help because it was chaos at best. The only way to do that would be to go through a governmental agency.”
At the time, Hairston also served as president of the Georgia PA Association and promoted legislation to facilitate enhanced emergency response. He kept pursuing avenues through which he could use his skills to be of further community service in a disaster situation. So, when he was approached by Dr. Heard about the 187th, he jumped at the chance.
“I realized THIS is it! This is what I want to do. Post-Katrina was when these units started to emerge … this initiative was really born from that.”
Hairston and his colleagues staff part of a CERFP (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear & Explosive Enhanced Response Force Packages) unit, one of 17 across the nation. These highly specialized units function as a joint forces operation and activate for medical support during emergency response. Their support could be in response to natural disasters or Search & Rescue (SAR) with the team running an on-site medical clinic to treat injuries.
“We can put up ER facilities in about an hour to treat all kinds of people,” Hairston reports, “to basically triage, stabilize, and then send them to a higher acuity facility.”
While there are units in Georgia – one of the first groups designated as CERFP was in Georgia – the need at the time of Hairston’s recruitment was in Alabama. “As a specialized unit, we go where the job places us,” he clarifies.
“I’m a United States Air Force officer and I work with the Alabama National Guard. All regulations are through the United States Air Force. I had to go through officer training school, and I wear a United States Air Force uniform. I just happened to be based in Alabama. We do regular training in Montgomery.”
National Guard commitments usually require attendance to training sessions one weekend each month and then two weeks every summer. The type of work Hairston’s unit does demands additional training programs to prepare the soldiers for specific emergency scenarios.
“From trauma services in St Louis to chemical biological forces in Maryland,” he elaborates, “we have to gain those competencies if we are called up. We have to be on call every day. We have to be on site within six hours if we’re needed. That’s our mission.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic morphed into a natural disaster mission in its own rite, the 187th CERFP embraced the call to action. Training prepared them with the skills to manage vaccine rollout to larger groups in shorter periods of time.
“This is the first big response my group has had,” Hairston reveals. “Hurricanes have called some units up. But this is the first major thing that our unit has been called up on.”
As medical officers, Hairston and his team administer thousands of vaccines. “All the PAs from Georgia that I work with are involved. We oversee the troops and the people being vaccinated. If there’s a question, we can help determine whether somebody is eligible for the vaccine and if a reaction occurs, they need us to evaluate it and provide or recommend treatment.”
They first facilitated large vaccine site initiatives but then readjusted the approach as they noted changing needs. “We’re having to redo some things now,” he says. “We were doing these huge vaccine clinics in these huge parking lots. But those numbers are not as robust as we’d like them to be. So now we are changing gears and switching things up.”
The new strategy involves coordinating groups to travel out to various locations. “We’re going to these places, maybe a factory, a prison, a nursing home, because we’ve found that people aren’t as apt to drive up as much. We’re learning as we go on this thing,” he confirms.
As messaging from public health leadership shifts, he feels that people become more confused and uncertain. “People are not sure what to do. What I try to do is talk to every person and see if they have questions. Whatever I say to them, they will pass along to somebody else. Information is the best preventative at this point.”
Enhanced internal communication and collaboration evolves as a side-benefit to this particular emergency assignment as teams from various organizations land on the same project, combining their strengths to tackle the challenges.
“We’ve got groups that on paper are supposed to work together but never really have,” he says. “Now they are and from that it will get better. Now they’ll be more comfortable. There will be some familiarity to pick up the phone and call people when other needs arise.”
Whenever that next call may ring, Hairston and the 187th will answer.