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Come Fly With Me: What It’s Like to be a Medevac Helicopter Pilot

Medevac Helicopter Pilot

I circle above the accident in the EMS helicopter I fly and take in the scene through the front and side windows. Below on the divided two-lane highway several cars are stopped at odd angles on the road and in the ditch. These are surrounded and intermingled by twice as many EMS vehicles, a mixture of ambulances, fire trucks and police cruisers. The traffic stopped in both directions has built up to mile long standstill. We know there are multiple individuals needing medical attention but have not yet heard the extent of their injuries. 

Despite what you might think, my heart rate is normal and my breathing even. I don’t feel amped up and my veins don’t course with adrenalin. I am calm and alert.

Perception

Instead what I feel is an enhanced sense of perception. It both widens and deepens into a hyperawareness that allows me to take in the big picture and the small details. I continue my circle, planning my approach to the landing zone while noting the obstacles in the area, the cell towers, rising terrain, and searching again and again for powerlines and wires- the thing I’m least likely to see from the air and the most likely to pull me out of the sky.

After we land, my crew, a nurse and paramedic, clamber out from the back of the helicopter carrying bags of emergency gear and a heart rate monitor beneath the still spinning rotor blades to the back of what I now think of as “our” ambulance with “our” patient. Finished with the aircraft shutdown, I join the people moving about the scene and my enhanced sense perception continues.

I notice the police officer bend his chin toward the radio affixed to the shoulder of his uniform, the firefighters in their gold turnouts, last names printed in reflective letters at the bottom edge of the back of their jackets and a stray sock in the median. I notice a wool blanket placed over a different patient before they are loaded into another ambulance.  A traffic lane opens and cars creep by, some drivers studying the scene while others stare fixedly ahead, preventing the image of twisted metal and crushed vehicles from being etched in their minds.

Even from the ground, I still can’t tell exactly what happened to cause the accident or which of these vehicles was the catalyst. It doesn’t really matter. Everyone involved will be changed because of this day. What I can tell is it was bad, the entire front end of one vehicle compacted in on itself. 

As they often do in these moments, my thoughts turn to my Dad. Four years after his accident I still feel thankful for the first responders and medical personnel that helped him survive his accident and give us time to say goodbye. I feel proud and grateful I’m able to do the same for others.

Juxtaposition

In these moments I am also aware of life’s juxtapositions. It is by experiencing the contrast of two things that we are capable of understanding them both. The deeper our experience of one, the more we are able to experience the other. Immense sadness allows us to know boundless happiness. The experience of grief allows us to experience joy. The more we know dying, the more we can live.

The light chatter amongst the EMS personnel reflects this: it is somber while also euphoric. We greet those we know by name and share a smile and then turn back to the scene to speculate at the events that have unfolded just a few minutes ago. We know the speed at which things can change and have changed for the people involved but are delighted at our own aliveness. 

The patient is now ready for transport and we wheel him to the side of the helicopter. He is cursing and screaming from pain and blood drips down his face while the crew draws up another dose of pain medication. In the years I’ve been flying an EMS helicopter, I’ve learned a patient that is yelling is good sign. It indicates life. The quiet ones are the ones closest to death unable to expend energy on anything but survival.

After we drop the patient at the hospital and are flying back to base, we see red and blue lights flashing in the distance. An occupant of the most badly mangled vehicle was pronounced dead at the scene, her body unable to withstand the impact. It will be a long evening for those still at the scene. 

Evidence

When I drive by the next morning, the only evidence of the crash are a few lines of orange spray paint marking the path of the vehicles as they collided and came to a halt. Had you not known about the accident you might not notice the paint or pass it off as markings for a construction project. What you can’t see in the lines is the pain of the families as they learned their loved one did not survive or the relief of those that did. You can’t see the trauma or grief. These marks are internal and never go away. 

We all have these marks engraved on our souls. Some of them are deep wounds while others are passing upsets or disappointments. Each of us also have the joyful moments too. The memories of a perfect day of kayaking or the evening of laughter with family and friends around a campfire. These are just as important though we often are more occupied with the traumatic.

As I continue my drive to work, I am again grateful to have a job where I’m reminded on a daily basis that we never know how long our life might be. I know the importance of living because I see the dying. I spend the rest of my drive recalling and savoring some of my life’s favorite moments. It isn’t the momentous that I remember but rather the everyday moments of joy and connectedness. 

Wish

It is my hope, my wish, and my dream, that my story reminds you that life changes in an instant and you never know when that might be. That you will be inspired to clean up hurtful words, tell people you love them, and to stop waiting for someday to create the life you’ve always dreamed about living. That you’ll allow joy to envelop your soul and your laughter to flow freely. That you will savor living.

What are two things that you are savoring right now? Share in the comments.

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{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Donna April 1, 2015, 12:40 am

    I am savoring the many blessings I have received over my life so far, and am in awe that I have received them. So.e of the blessings did not become apparent for a long time, and not all were perceived as blessings at the time because they were sad or troubling.

    • Lorena April 1, 2015, 12:56 am

      I agree Donna, we can often find lots of good in our hardest moments.

  • Tosha April 1, 2015, 2:38 am

    I saw the subject to this email in my inbox…”want to fly with me?”…I got way too excited! She wants to take me flying!!!? What!? And then I realized I hadn’t seen a blog post from you in a bit…and sure enough. Haha. I enjoy your words Lorena. Thanks for sharing…great reminders. And it was really great to officially meet you last week.

    • Lorena April 1, 2015, 5:08 pm

      It was great to meet you too Tosha! And I do hope we’ll get to fly together some day.

  • Linda Russell April 1, 2015, 5:00 pm

    Lorena this is such a wonderful piece of writing! I’m so happy you’re getting your writing out there. When I met you at the Tutka Bay writing workshop with Pam Houston I knew you were one determined woman and you would be a great writer! Thanks for a wonderful story…….keep the stories coming!

    • Lorena April 1, 2015, 5:09 pm

      Thank you Linda, that is high praise. I love seeing the pictures you post on Facebook. Beautiful.

  • julia April 2, 2015, 12:27 am

    Lorena, this is amazing, and such a powerful reminder to enjoy the present and live to the fullest.
    I am savoring the sweat dripping down my face from walking to my office after lunch and the fact that mangoes are already growing on the trees here.

    • Lorena April 2, 2015, 12:33 am

      Thanks Julia! Wonderful things to savor! None of the fruit in Alaska has been good for months, a mango sounds absolutely divine!

  • Kate April 5, 2015, 7:09 pm

    So beautifully written and so true. I’m one of your medical counterparts and I was nodding my head throughout the entire post. I completely agree that being around sickness and death has only encouraged me to live harder, conquer fears, and explore everything life offers us. Experiencing every emotion fully allows for a humble appreciation for them all. I loved your TED talk, and it definitely inspired me to push the boundaries with my relationships as well as all of my other goals. Thanks for the inspiration! Fly safe, and I wish nothing but blue – and pink! :-) – skies for you!

    • Lorena April 6, 2015, 5:25 pm

      Thanks Kate! I’m happy to be sharing the skies (pink and blue) with you!

  • Chris April 5, 2015, 8:26 pm

    This is great article. And is very well written.
    Two things that I’m savoring, are the fact that I’m lucky enough to be able to fly for a living. And the fantastic family that I have.

    • Lorena April 6, 2015, 5:25 pm

      Thanks Chris! Time with family is one of my favorite things to savor as well.

  • Joe April 6, 2015, 5:01 pm

    I am one of the paramedic responders. I try to live each day to the fullest. I recently started flying
    R-22’s I have always dreamed of flying a helicopter. I don’t know why I waited so long. I am thankful I am able to pursue the dream. I have met some amazing people so far.

    Thank you for your story.

    • Lorena April 6, 2015, 5:27 pm

      Congrats on going for your dreams Joe! Someone told me once, if you can fly an R22, you can fly anything. So far it is very true! Keep us updated on your progress.

  • Patti Bippus April 6, 2015, 9:37 pm

    Nice read. Thank you for the post, but even more for the wonderful path you’ve taken with you life.
    Patti Bippus
    (Stacia’s Mom)

    • Lorena April 7, 2015, 3:21 am

      Thanks Patti! I hear you’re Fairbanks bound, it’ll be fun to see you around the base more. :)

  • Marc McKee April 7, 2015, 6:15 pm

    Lorena,
    I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and a fellow pilot liked your story. I’m glad he did…because, you put into words what most of us feel as EMS pilots. It was a pleasure flying with you, all those years ago in Oregon. Stay safe in the air and don’t stop writing.
    I’m glad to know ya.
    Marc McKee

    • Lorena April 7, 2015, 7:25 pm

      Marc-
      I’m happy to be sharing the skies and the profession with you.

      Best,
      Lorena

  • Mick Cullen April 8, 2015, 12:12 am

    Great write up Lorena. Grateful to have kids home today on holidays and creating memories with them.

    • Lorena April 8, 2015, 1:12 am

      Thanks Mick! I’m glad you’re enjoying quality time with the kids. Keep up the great podcasts!

  • Ian April 8, 2015, 5:38 am

    I’m savoring your write up. Thank you!!

    • Lorena April 9, 2015, 4:44 am

      Thanks Ian!

  • Veronica April 8, 2015, 11:26 pm

    I’m savouring those words , I enjoy my job which is an helicopter pilot also and I can’t wait to be one of the family medevac pilots.

    • Lorena April 9, 2015, 4:44 am

      Thanks for connecting Veronica, it is always great to hear from other female pilots. Keep in touch and let me know if I can help- plenty helped me along the way and I enjoy paying it forward.

  • Ron Floyd April 9, 2015, 4:01 am

    Great work Lorena! Your perspective is refreshing. BTW, I’m glad to see you’re still sharing your knowledge, experience and wisdom. I remember what a great teaching style you had during my CFI ground class at HAI. :)

    • Lorena April 9, 2015, 4:42 am

      Ron, great to hear from you! Once a teacher always a teacher.;) I love seeing pictures of your kiddos that Katie posts. Beautiful!

  • Anne June 12, 2015, 7:49 am

    Savoring the love in my heart for myself and all those who are in my life – lovers, family and friends of all kinds. So blessed to live in this beautiful state and have the skills and education to help others. So blessed to be able to read your words and understand not only the words and the story, but also the feelings and emotions behind them. Thank you.

    • Lorena June 18, 2015, 8:44 pm

      Thanks for sharing Anne! I’m happy to be sharing Alaska with you!

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