Flight nurse Gennifer De Paoli, 31, shares what those crucial minutes in the helicopter feel like.
Sometimes, when I walk through the door of our base to start my 24-hour shift as a flight nurse, the tones go off right away. They sound horrible, like a very loud beeping. After a few seconds, dispatch tells us where we’re going, but they never tell us who we’re going to. It doesn’t matter. We already know all we need to know to get us out the door: Someone is very badly injured—or dying.
Our team consists of a pilot and two nurses, and only once we’re en route—traveling at 120 miles per hour, no less—do we find out what sort of tragedy we’re responding to. Honestly, most of the time, you just don’t even want to know until you get there, because until you arrive, your only job is to keep the aircraft and flight crew safe. In the air, we’re just looking for things that could kill us: power lines, light poles, other aircraft and birds. When we arrive on the scene, we talk about where to land. We’ve done it everywhere: in the middle of a freeway, in a field, on a beach, even on bridges.
I still get butterflies every single time we go out. I’ve been doing this for nearly three years now, but even the nurses who’ve been doing it for decades still feel that way. When I first started this job, sometimes my leg would involuntary shake when we got a really sick patient. No one else noticed, but I did. It was from all the adrenaline. That sense of urgency never goes away. At night, it’s worse.
"It's so physically demanding"
Once we land, the pilot idles the helicopter while the nurses go to the patient. It’s so physically demanding. I’m 5’2”, 106 pounds, and I wear a flight suit, boots, a vest, a helmet with night vision goggles if it’s dark and a 50-pound pack on my back full of equipment and drugs. I’m always dripping with sweat. It’s usually chaotic on the ground. Our goal is to get to the patient and get that patient out of there in under ten minutes. If we took forever on scene, there’d be no point to what we do.
I’ve had some terrible calls. In the winter, we get a lot of motor vehicle and skiing accidents. In the summer, especially around Memorial Day, we get a lot of boating accidents, drownings and drunk driving accidents. Last year, we saved a 90-minute old baby who went into respiratory distress after a home birth.
"Hug each other a little tighter"
When someone dies in your hands, you feel helpless, like you’ve failed them. But it doesn’t usually hit you until afterward. I’ve had calls that have stuck with me for weeks, even months. It’s an emotional burden, but if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be a good nurse. I just have to be able to live with whatever treatment decisions I made in the field, knowing I’ll have to look at myself in the mirror the next day and say, ‘I did everything I could.”
And when you save a life, it’s very gratifying. There’s really nothing else like it in the world. It makes me feel useful and humble. I’ve even gotten boxes of chocolates from patients, who were unconscious when I met them, but who tracked me down later. Once, I even got some chocolate covered strawberries—and a phone number—from a patient we treated!
Having seen what I’ve seen, if I have any advice, it’d be this: Don’t drink and drive. Keep a close eye on your kids, especially around water. Hug each other a little tighter. Don’t hold grudges or let loved ones leave you without being in a good place with them. And say “I love you’ now,” because things can always change at any minute.