It’s 2:00 am and you are headed home to Chattanooga on Hwy 111. It won’t be long, and home and a warm bed is waiting. Rounding a corner, you catch the movement but too late – a large buck has decided to cross the road. Swerving to avoid it you plunge off the embankment, crashing into a tree. Even with the airbag you know you have suffered a head injury, but fortunately find your cellphone and call 911. An ambulance is headed your way, along with a fire and recue crew, but it’s going to take some time to get you out. And time is of the essence with a head injury so an alert EMT calls for Life Force. Instead of a curvy backroad 75-minute drive to Erlanger, the only Level 1 Trauma Center in the tri-state region, you’ll make the trip in 15 minutes, comin’ in hot in the belly of an Airbus H135 at 160 mph.
I was having these fantasies almost continuously as I lay in my bed on the third floor of Erlanger. I was surprised at how many helicopter flights there were (upwards of 2,500 each year) and it seemed they were more common at night and on weekends. It also seemed they were flying right over my head. I was so proud of the crews I couldn’t see, out at night and in weather, doing the thing they do. I concocted scenarios and shared them, tearfully, with Diana when she was there. The tears were for the heroes that were saving lives, leaving their families (and the ground) to provide a critical time bridge from remote locations to the hospital.
“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne
Erlanger started the air medical operation many years ago. It now has six helicopters based throughout the region and can cut transport from, say, the forests of North Carolina down to 30 minutes from a 2.5 hour ambulance drive. Most of the helicopters have night vision and GPS capability for single-operator pinpoint landings. The medical team will include a nurse and an EMT and they are stocked like your local clinic with meds, plasma, ultrasound, IVs and everything else needed to keep the patient alive. This is a high-quality, well-funded operation. And it saves lives.
It does that by flying them straight to Erlanger in Chattanooga, a Level 1 Trauma Center. These folks know how to deal with strokes, burns, cardiac events and all sorts of head trauma. It is the place to be when the clock is ticking, and has the trained staff of nurses and doctors to handle anything the crews can fly in.
My own ride to Erlanger wasn’t quite so dramatic (we stayed on the ground!) but just as impressive. When Diana called 911 in the middle of the night, since we lived in the city limits of Soddy Daisy, the police, fire department and Hamilton County ambulance all appeared at our door. Throw in the neighbors (a blessing – we watch out for each other) and there was quite the crowd there on Harmony Lane. I asked to be taken to Memorial, where I had my heart surgeries, but after a full-body spasm that took all five responders to wrestle me to the gurney, the EMT looked at me and said: “I’m taking you to Erlanger. That’s where you need to be.” I didn’t argue and we headed south, lights ablazin’ and sirens awailin’, and we were comin’ in hot, but maybe at 70 mph.
“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on the ambulance.” – Unknown, seen on a sticker
Ultimately, after the fine folks at Erlanger kept me alive, I was sent down to Siskin Hospital for Rehabilitation. Down there I could see the helicopters as they left Erlanger, but I lost that visceral rush of the rotor wash I had heard at Erlanger. But I stopped and stared at every chopper that flew by my window and continued fantasizing about the missions these crews experienced. And the lives they saved.
So, I’m sitting in a wheelchair at the PT gym in what is called Gait Group. These are small group therapy sessions that emphasize leg strength, stability and walking. Talking with the lady next to me it turns out she was on her porch up in Fall Creek Falls and felt bad. She was able to text her sister HELP and an ambulance was called. Now, that’s getting rural, even by Tennessee standards, so it took awhile to get there. And then the EMT made the call and Life Force was scrambled to whisk her away to Erlanger. It would have easily been an hour-and-a-half ride by ambulance, but the helicopter cut it to a third of that. As she told me the story it turns out that two weeks before our meeting she couldn’t talk. Now here she was, telling stories. And walking like a pro. That extra hour could have made the difference between a life of paralysis and her current state. When I told her how excited I was to hear her story, especially the Life Force part, she said if she had her druthers she wouldn’t get on a helicopter – but she was glad she did, because comin’ in hot made all the difference.
We, as a society, spend a lot of time recognizing military veterans, as well we should. But in your daily life there are these heroes, these pilots and nurses and EMTs and ambulance drivers, that are waiting to save your life. That’s what they do. They leave their homes not knowing what they will see, what kind of trauma they will experience, where they will be called. And that crew at the Level 1 Trauma Center is waiting for you, comin’ in hot on the helipad or through the ER doors. These folks deserve our respect and admiration – without them we wouldn’t stand a chance.
“I didn’t become an EMT to get a front-row seat to other people’s tragedies. I did it because I knew the world was bleeding and so was I, and somewhere inside I knew the only way to stop my own bleeding was to learn how to stop someone else’s.” – Daniel José Older