Monday, April 18, 2005

An ambulance that flies

This past weekend, I had the privilege and honor of riding along with an area university hospital's medical evacuation helicopter. This hospital is a Level 2 trauma specialty center that accepts and performs air accident scene responses and patient transports. Patients are airlifted between this hospital the local area, and sometimes to facilities all across the state. This particular hospital's air ambulance service has a fly-along program for certified EMTs. I was fortunate enough to be granted a day with the crew.

I was told by the fly-along program coordinator that Krispy Kreme donuts have an interesting, and foolproof, effect on the day's work. So far, every shift that a fly-along has brought these treats, the crew has had at least one activation. Days that the confections were not brought by the guests have all resulted in zero flights.

Running with this idea, I purchased a dozen donuts, but took it one step further. Instead of the standard twelve original glazed, I got a little funky. I ordered 6 glazed and 6 assorted, and ensured that the 6 assorted were all well-known favorites of many (including myself). I showed up at the hospital's emergency room, at 0715 sharp, donuts in hand, and well prepared for the day ahead.

After being fitted with a flight suit and a helmet, I was given the safety briefing, including how to approach the helicopter, when to enter and exit, what to do in the event of an emergency landing, and so on. One of the first things that was shown to me in the patient compartment was the location of the barf bags. I thought this was funny at the time, but that information almost came in handy later. More on that below.

Our safety briefing completed, a quick breakfast in our stomachs, and we were dispatched to our first call. I climbed into the ship (they call it a ship), helmeted and buckled myself, and hung on for dear life. Within seconds, we were in the air.

It took a while for me to get used to the lurching and bobbing of the aircraft. The pilot seemed to enjoy banking turns so sharp that I swear we were almost sideways. A few times, my stomach went one way, while my body went the other. I remembered the words of one of the two flight nurses during the briefing: look on the horizon, breathe slowly. My stomach eventually settled, and I inhaled a satisfying sigh of relief. Until I heard the two most dreaded words possible from the pilot over my helmet's intercom:

"Oh, sh*t."

These are words you do NOT want to hear from the pilot of the helicopter you're riding in, especially on your FIRST FLIGHT. Instinctively, my arms crossed over my shoulders in preparation for a crash landing.

As it turns out, a gauge was showing that one of the engines was receiving zero fuel supply. Although the ship can fly all day on one engine, we immediately aborted our response to the incident, and headed towards Moffett Field for an emergency landing. But within one minute, the gauge issue resolved itself.

The engine had fuel all along. It was the gauge itself that was acting up.

Relieved, we headed back to the hospital. Another air ambulance company covered the call we had originally been dispatched to, and we debarked to allow the mechanic to look at the gauge.

In between calls, the Flight Nurses often help out at the hospital's Emergency Department. They are, of course, certified nurses, with many years experience and with extensive additional training above and beyond the standard RN. I tagged along as they expertly helped out with various patients and procedures with ease. It is no wonder these two have been promoted to the high level they are at right now. Their technical skills, and ability to relate to the patients, were nothing short of amazing.

As Murphy's Law dictates, the minute we started talking about lunch, we were dispatched to another incident. Good thing I'd stashed some protein bars in the leg pocket of my flight suit. Low blood sugar and a lurching helicopter probably do not make a very good combination.

We ran two emeregency scene transports in a row; one for a motorcyclist who had trapped his leg between his bike and a tree, and another for a man who had been beaten up, bloodied and knocked unconscious with no memory of the event. By the time we returned to the hospital, it was near 3:00.

Reheated pizza tastes REALLY good when you're this hungry. :)

The final call of the day was one that will be imprinted in my mind for the rest of my life. We were called to a nearby city, famous for violence and gang activity, for a double shooting. Not an uncommon sight in this rough town, unfortunately.

The details of the incident was relayed to me by one of the ground paramedics who had responded to the initial call. A 16-year-old female was walking down the street with a baby in her arms. A 22-year-old male was walking with her, carrying two Bibles. In an instant, both were shot in the back by a gunman in a moving vehicle.

The victims were shot while on their way to church.

Two people, infant and Bibles in hand, cut down by a drive-by shooter as they walked to church.

For once, I was rendered speechless.

When our ship landed on the scene, the patients both were alert and conscious. The baby was fine, and had been taken away by relatives. Thankfully, due to our ship's dimensions, we were able to airlift and care for both patients at the same time.

After our arrival at the hospital, the pilot made sure to deliver them their Bibles.

What kind of world is this that two people with a baby are shot at, from the back, while on a Sunday morning stroll to church ? This, I will never understand.

It is a fact of life that emergency workers see these things on a daily basis. Yet the responders are in a unique position that they can make a difference in a patient's life, and bring sanity, calmness and a human touch to a seemingly incomprehensible situation. This became apparent as the crew and I sat in the cafeteria together for a much-needed refreshment.

A woman passing through noticed the flight suits and approached us. She told us that her husband had been involved in a terrible accident, and had been airlifted by our ship the week before. She went on to say, "Thank you for treating my husband and for getting him the help he needed so quickly. He still needs more surgery, but is recuperating well and is in good spirits. I'm so glad you guys were there."

This is what makes it all worthwhile.

One does not do this type of work for the recognition, for the kudos, for the supposed feeding of one's ego. Emergency Medical Services is a tough industry, often thankless, often involving situations that are too horrible, too gruesome, too appalling for the general public to comprehend. Yet at the end of the day, it is about helping people, about reaching out to those who are weakened, hurt and scared, and about giving them the best chance possible at continuing on with their lives. It is this humanity, this connection with people, this unique opportunity to make a difference that has captivated me. Whether I continue with my volunteer work, or change careers altogether, I now know that it is my duty, my purpose, my mission in life to help others in need. If I can make a difference - however small - in someone's life, I will feel that I have fulfilled that purpose.

The day's experience on the airborne ambulance was another chapter in that book.

I now have a new theory. The day's call volume was yet another confirmation of the mystical properties of Krispy Kreme donuts when brought by a fly-along. Our calls, ranging between Santa Cruz in the south to Richmond in the north, one bout of supposed mechanical problems, and a productive stint in the ER, has given rise to a new theory of mine. I believe that the assortment of donut flavors is directly related, and possibly the cause, of the assortment of calls and situations experienced throughout the day. I hope someday to have collaborating evidence to support this theory. :)

The crew

Beautiful scenery

This is me !


Blogger Matthew said...

It is not a thankless job, countless people will thank you because they will see the sacrafices you make and the willingness to help. This is why so many off duty FD and medics wear their t-shirts because they are proud of what they do. How many marketing folks wear their company logo on a Saturday? You should be proud of what you do, society is already.

April 19, 2005 at 8:41:00 AM PDT  

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