JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va.— On a sunny, December afternoon, Thomas Massa walked from under the overhang at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, Virginia. He’d finally been able to get a break in between patients during a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift where he works as a medical technician in the hospital’s emergency department. It was two days before Christmas, but Massa already knew he’d be working two more 12-hour shifts through the holiday and weekend ahead.
Wearing teal scrubs and red indentations on his face caused by the double N95 and cloth masks, Massa looked like a lot of the healthcare workers at the forefront of the on-going pandemic. But Massa isn’t your typical emergency room medic. He also serves part-time in the Virginia Air National Guard as an aerospace medical technician. As a staff sergeant in the position, he’s been able to serve his community as one of 120 Virginia National Guard Airmen and Soldiers who are continuing to provide COVID-19 response support to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Virginia Department of Health.
Serving in the military part time while working in a comparable full-time position on the civilian side is not uncommon in the Guard. However, Massa said it was beneficial to see the health crisis through different lenses and to bring his experiences from one side of the spectrum to the other.
“In Detachment 1, we are the people who dress up in hazmat suits and have gas masks on, but one of the things we always practice is putting on our PAPR (Powered Air Purifying Respirator),” Massa said. “The training became useful when COVID started, and we had to intubate more and more people to help them breathe. The medical staff [at Riverside Regional] all had to wear PAPRs. My experience really played a huge part in the COVID response because I could be there to help doctors and nurses put on their PAPRs, something they’ve never had to do before.”
As a military child, Massa grew up moving frequently but calls San Antonio, Texas, home. He moved to Virginia when his father received orders to Joint Base Langley-Eustis in 2011. Massa inherited that virtue to serve and said he’d actually planned to enlist active duty like his dad. After graduating high school, Massa said he decided on the Air National Guard instead because going to college in Virginia also became a priority.
“I decided to live the military life and college life at the same time by joining the Guard,” he said. “I had an outlet to pay for college but also to get that military experience, and it worked out!”
Without knowing what career field he cared to go into, Massa said he always found the medical field to be interesting. As a teen, he worked as a lifeguard at a local theme park and received basic CPR and first-aid training. When he had the opportunity to choose between medical technician and intel analyst jobs, he thought he’d go with the one he thought was the most exciting and now has become his “calling.”
“In this career field, you can learn something new everyday,” he said. “Medicine is always changing, and you have to stay up to date. The biggest thing though, is the conversations you get to have with people when you’re helping them. When you go into that room and talk to your patient, you get to hear a little bit of their story, but mostly you hear a lot about their problems. It’s not like they’re there because they want to be there. Generally, it’s one of the worst days of their lives, or they’re very sick.”
After finishing Basic Military Training and technical training to be proficient in his Air Force specialty, Massa immediately started accepting active-duty orders to work in the ER at Langley Air Force Base as often as he could. When he accepted the position as an ED medic at Riverside Regional, he’d already had more than a year of experience and a humanitarian deployment under his belt for which he was the sole medic.
And he’s continuing to grow his medical proficiency. For a short period, Massa studied International Relations at Old Dominion University but ultimately decided to pursue his education to become a medical doctor while continuing his service to the Commonwealth.
“The citizen-Airman thing is so awesome,” Massa said. “I don’t think people really realize the impact being in the Guard or Reserves has when it comes to serving the community. It was really cool to be able to get out and help with the state’s COVID-19 response. The Guard is awesome for pursuing both civilian and military aspirations -- it’s very doable.”