Air Angels: Air Med technicians put their lives on the line to save others

Editor’s Note: Please download the PDF version (pages 4 and 5) of The Daily Utah Chronicle to see all of the featured photos.

They’ve traded in their hospital scrubs for $300 black flight suits proudly displaying the red and gray wings of Air Med across the back. They wear black tactile boots, dark shades, helmets equipped with visors and headsets and their helicopters have night vision.

These are the cream of the crop: the men and women who represent the very best nurses, paramedics and pilots the state of Utah has to offer.

Program director Ken Matthews said most people who work for Air Med are perfectionists who are always pushing their limits.

“We get the adventurers and the adrenaline junkies, people who aren’t real quiet or subdued. We have world-class climbers, bikers, runners and SWAT team members. We don’t get slackers,” Matthews said.

Air Med nurses and paramedics also have to be, as public relations coordinator and flight nurse Rob said, “resilient and tough-skinned. They’ll see in a day what most people won’t see in a lifetime.” The nature of the job is like that of any crisis management position-staying cool under pressure and learning to develop a hard enough exterior so the job gets done and gets done as best it can.”

Air Med is designed to service smaller outlying communities whose hospitals don’t have the medical technology necessary for extreme sicknesses and emergencies. The helicopter and airplane teams of Air Med can dramatically shorten the transport time for a patient, which sometimes means the difference between life and death.

Air Med also goes directly to trauma scenes and is able to access remote areas and rural hospitals with greater speed than traditional ambulances.

The Air Med crews cover a 24-hour call period and have adult and pediatric teams as well as nurses who specialize in obstetrics and newborn trauma.

While the Air Med crews are dedicated to saving lives, they realize that goal is impossible to achieve unless the crew members themselves are safe.

“You can get yourselves killed if you are trying to save someone without considering safety first,” Air Med pilot Bob Wilke said.

According to Wilke, most accidents with medical helicopter teams nationwide happen because of this type of careless heroism. He emphasized that his first priority is to work for the nurses and the paramedics of his team, not the patient. The pilot’s job is to make decisions based on the safety and good of the whole.

To be a pilot is to become an expert in wind.

“You live and die by the wind,” Wilke said.

Wilke provides status reports back to the U base every 10 minutes to lead dispatcher Jared Velez, who is gathering information, coordinating flight schedules and making arrangements by ground.

Inside the helicopters is all the equipment needed to make up a miniature intensive care unit: emergency kits, ventilators, pumps, IV fluids, defibrillators, an adjustable bed for patients and many other necessities.

“We end up telling the doctor what we’ve seen. They have to trust us, and we have to earn that trust,” said Rick Thomson, a flight nurse.

Air Med has worked hard to earn their reputation for excellence. Matthews said that above all else, what really draws people to work for Air Med is the “opportunity to make an impact. For many patients, this is a crucial turning point in their lives-things can change dramatically for better or worse. We get to fight a really good fight with death. It’s a valiant and honorable thing.”

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