Benefits outweigh risks for air medical crews
By Robert Mitchum and Judith Graham
AP Photo/Paul Beaty
A Dupage County Emergency Management worker is comforted near the wreckage of a helicopter crash in Aurora, Ill. Four people, including a 13-month-old girl, were killed when a medical evacuation helicopter crashed overnight in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, authorities said early Thursday.
AURORA, Ill. — For medical professionals who climb on board helicopters hundreds of times a year, the job can mean dark, urgent flights through uncertain landscapes, emergency landings in cow pastures and medical equipment bouncing to and fro because of choppy winds.
But air medical transport also grants its workers the rush of flying above the world and the indescribable feeling of saving the lives of people who might not otherwise have been reached in time.
That is what has kept Mary Jo Dunne, 53, working as a flight nurse for 23 years on more than 2,000 flights with the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, even as she hears all too frequently of medical helicopter crashes like the one that killed four people in Aurora.
"That will be on my mind when I get in the helicopter because of the loss of people, but I don't think we ever project that as being us," Dunne said. "For a very long time, my thinking has been clear that this isn't an inherently dangerous job. The benefit we're providing the patients should outweigh the risks."
Dunne and other air medical workers said Thursday that the latest accident, which follows a dozen other U.S. crashes in the last year, rattled them emotionally but did not shake their resolve to continue offering a unique and essential service.
"The focus is on the patient. I don't even realize what's going on around me," said Amanda Bostjancic, 28, a pediatric nurse for the intensive-care unit at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn.
Dangerous situations do arise, but Dunne said she puts absolute trust in her pilots. When thick ice on a helicopter's windshield forced an emergency landing several years ago, "the pilot had us on the ground before we realized what was happening," she said.
That wasn't the last challenge. "We had a patient on board, so I had to slog through a field full of cows to get to a phone and call a ground ambulance," Dunne said.
Paramedics, physicians and nurses who fly on air ambulances in the Chicago area cited several reasons for their career choice: the challenge of treating critical patients in an extreme environment, the unpredictability of each day's work, the independence of working closely with a small team.
"It's definitely a kind of adrenaline rush," said Cindy Rahilly, clinical operations assistant for the pediatric neonatal transport team at Hope Children's Hospital, who did air transports for about two years. "You're picking up a very critical patient. And because the doctor isn't with you, you have a lot of autonomy."
Dania Lees, 32, said she was obsessed with flying at a young age and got hooked on air medical transport from her first fly-along as a medical student at the University of Chicago.
"The minute I got up there, I said, 'This is what I want to do,'" said Lees, now a physician at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. "Not only the thrill of being able to fly, but to go and take care of a patient and fly them back to where you're confident they'll get the care they're going to need."
Dunne said the daily joy of seeing the world from a vantage point few experience is why she still works the 24-hour shifts the job demands even after two decades in the business.
"There isn't a minute that goes by that I don't enjoy flying," Dunne said. "The sunrises and sunsets. The cityscape, the farmlands in snow and moonlight. ... It's breathtaking and beautiful. The theater in which we practice is so beautiful it's beyond belief."
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