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Abby (Cooper) Coccagna, BSN Nursing 2012

  • Abby CoccagnaCaptain Abby Coccagna didn’t know why there was a person with a gunshot wound lying in the back of her helicopter. But there was.

    A medical flight nurse serving in Afghanistan, she and her crew (herself, two pilots, one crew chief, and one medic) received a report to transport a patient with a lower body injury to the hospital. After landing outside the battlefield, they were informed that their patient already departed on another aircraft. They returned to their helicopter only to find a different patient inside; lying awake, with a gunshot wound in his back, a chest tube protruding from his chest, with no paperwork, and no identification. Abby and the medical crew had to act fast.

    But before we finish that story, let’s find out how Abby arrived in the sandy mountains of Afghanistan, via the pine filled campus of Saint Francis University.

    Becoming a Nurse

    It was clear early on Abby wanted to become a nurse. “Growing up, I was very accident prone and frequented the ER for my injuries,” Abby remembers. “I don’t recall the doctors, but I always remember the nurses being so kind and caring.” After entering the Nursing Program at Saint Francis University, the curriculum and nursing faculty solidified Abby’s career choice. She explained, “I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. The staff were really invested in the students and that gave me the confidence to continue through the program. I love interacting with patients and their families, really getting to know them as individuals and not just a name on a whiteboard.” Dr. Rita Trofino, DNP, MNEd, RN, who serves as the Nursing Department Chair and Associate Dean in the School of Health Sciences recalls, “Abby worked hard to get through the program. She always had a positive attitude, and a great bedside manner.” Abby added, “I enjoy the challenge.  No patient presents the same way. Having to use lab values, vital signs, working closely with the physicians to figure out what is wrong with the patient and how to treat them. It never fails to fascinate me.”

       That ability to adapt, and to figure out what is wrong was now coming into play, Captain Coccagna checked the wounded soldier’s vitals and began to monitor his heart and oxygen levels.  

    Abby and RogueA Call to Serve

    Abby wanted to move away from her hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania to start her career, but she didn’t want work to be the only reason for leaving. “I researched Active Duty Army Nursing and nurses were in high demand. I spoke to family friends in the military and it just felt like the right fit for me.” Abby remembered. She enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program while at Saint Francis. Completing the ROTC program would allow her to enter the Army as an officer. “Abby is the first nursing student in recent memory to enter into the service after graduation.” Says Dr. Trofino. Graduating SFU was just the beginning of the adventure. Abby was first commissioned to Active Duty Nurse Corps in August 2012. Then, it was off to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for a two month Basic Officer Leadership Course. Next came Fort Benning, Georgia where she worked in their ICU. Finally, to San Antonio, Texas for a two week Joint Enroute Care course to become a flight nurse. She is now stationed at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. “I provide my critical care skill set on the back of Blackhawk helicopters. Our job is to transfer patients from the battlefield to a higher level of care.”

      A higher level of care. Literally, in every sense of the word when you’re a flight nurse. After assessing the wounded soldier and confirming he was not currently in any pain, the helicopter took off.  Captain Coccagna began doing vitals every 10 minutes and continued to reassess him until they arrived at the hospital.   

    Abby and Flight CrewRemembering her Franciscan Foundation

    There is a tradition at Bagram Airfield. American flags are flown to honor people, places, and events then given away as souvenirs. So it was no surprise that Abby decided to fly and dedicate a flag to the nursing department at Saint Francis University. “They are the reason I am able to be in Afghanistan doing Enroute critical care.” Abby recalled, “They had faith in me and this is one way I can show my gratitude.” The flag is scheduled to arrive on campus soon. Included with the flag is a signed certificate by the flight crew confirming when and where the flag was flown. “We love when graduates stay in touch.” Dr. Trofino remarked. “We truly take pride in all of our students. When we look back and see them start out struggling to take a blood pressure, and then transform in two short years to passing an Advanced Cardiac Life Support Course, it is very gratifying. Our consecutive four-year 100 percent NCLEX pass rate affirms our program quality. Serving our country, Abby brings great pride to the department. To think that we had a part in the development of where she is today is truly humbling.”

      Where Abby is today, is awaiting her next mission. And in a war zone, there will be a next mission.  The soldier with the gunshot wound arrived at the hospital just in time. He was rushed to the operating room, and expected to make a full recovery.   

    “We didn’t question why this soldier was put on our aircraft. Abby recalled, “It’s just another example that no matter how much you prepare, there’s always something that can go completely different and you need to be ready to adjust quickly.”

    Another American soldier will get to go home. Thanks to the knowledge and expertise of the flight crew, Captain Abby Coccagna, and in no small part, to the knowledge and education she received at Saint Francis University.


    Top: Captain Abby (Cooper) Coccagna, BSN Nursing 2012
    Middle: Abby and morale dog Rogue
    Bottom:  Flight Crew Left to Right: Pilot CW2 Austin Nelson, Pilot CW2 Cody Haley, Flight Medic SGT Brandon Klinger, ECCN Abby Coccagna