Intensive Care in the Air
Chico Statements recently caught up with alum Kyle Madigan to get a glimpse into the life of a flight nurse. He has been transporting critically ill and seriously injured patients by helicopter for 16 years.
Madigan (MS, Nursing, ’91) is the chief flight nurse for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s Advanced Response Team (DHART) in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and president-elect of the Air & Surface Transport Nurses Association. He lives in New Hampshire with wife Lynn and children Ellie and Troy.
What does a flight nurse do?
A flight nurse is part of a team—usually a flight nurse, a flight paramedic, and a pilot—that transports patients either from the scene of an accident or between hospitals.
Flight nurses provide intensive or emergency care en route. We are trained to provide interventions usually reserved for physicians only. It is not unusual for us to place a breathing tube into a patient’s trachea or start a central line (a large IV), for example.
We deal with patients who are anywhere from newborn to elderly. Heart attacks, strokes, trauma, pediatrics, obstetrics—the list is long and varied.
What kind of bond do you develop with your co-workers?
You develop a very close bond with the folks you work with. You end up spending 12 hours a day working side by side with these individuals, dealing with very challenging situations (life or death), seeing things that most people will never see. You are crammed into a rather small working environment—there is not a lot of room in the back of a medical helicopter—and expected to perform at a very high level.
How dangerous is it to work in a helicopter?
I would be lying to you if I said that it was not dangerous. Safety is the key guiding principle of all flight teams. We have a saying at DHART that “it takes three to say go and one to say no.” At any time during a flight, if one person feels uncomfortable with the situation, weather, circumstances, etc., we will cancel the flight and return to base.
What is the most difficult day you’ve had on the job?
As most nurses will tell you, we are often interacting with people in some of their worst moments. Whether it is the patients themselves or their families, we are interjected into the middle of their crisis. Many patients come to mind—the mother who died on Mother’s Day, the teenage girl who only had her license for a day before getting into the accident that claimed her life. … Unfortunately, the list is endless.
What is most rewarding about your work?
Seeing people through some of their most dire moments—and knowing that something we did may have played a role in their recovery. And being part of a bigger team that often starts with the pre-hospital providers (EMTs or paramedics), the emergency department, intensive care units, and on to rehab. Everyone plays a key role in how patients will do.
— Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications