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Risky Business: Atrium Health's MedCenter Air flights make danger look routine

Risky Business: Atrium Health's MedCenter Air flights make danger look routine


A helicopter hovering onto the scene of a medical emergency isn't an everyday thing for those on the ground looking on, but for the pilots and crews of onboard Atrium Health's MedCenter Air flights, it is another day at work. But that doesn't mean it's as simple as rolling out of bed and jumping in the helicopter.

"Every flight is different, but we may see some of the same things, you don't want to become complacent," Martin "Marty" Fisher said. "Not every landing is different, but they're not easy. For me, every landing is testing myself. It's not like landing on a runway with an area cleared out. It's very different from fixed-wing aviation."

Fisher is the aviation director for Atrium Health’s MedCenter Air. He said though it's easier than when he was landing aircraft on ships when he was in the military. "At least the ground isn't moving."

There may be similarities when the American Eurocopter EC135 P2+ flies to a scene, but the crew keeps their eyes open as wind and obstacles can make any ingress and egress dangerous, according to Fisher. But that seeming familiarity also can lull someone into a sense of safety if they aren't careful.

"It's always different. It can come back to bite you if you don't pay attention," Jason Haynes said. He is a registered nurse and the Blue Ridge Base Outreach Liaison for MedCenter Air. "You always need to be on point."

With that in mind, crews train and go over situations time and time again to make sure everyone is aware of the dangers of flying and landing in the differing but sometimes similar situations they run into.

"It's dangerous, but we mitigate that risk," Haynes said.

He said between training firefighters and first responders on how to pick out a landing zone and the eyes of the crew in the helicopter, they can do their jobs safely. "We let know the dangers."

Whether it is keeping clear of trees while landing on a thin strip of road or avoiding other obstacles, there are plenty of dangers that the pilots and crews look out for as they make what are routine flights for them. Any of the three crew members on each flight can call off a landing, speaking to the trust involved when they take to the air on each flight. 

So far through 34 years of service, MedCenter Air has reported no accidents.

Teamwork and being part of the community

Part of why Fisher joined MedCenter Air after a stint in the Marines was a search for the camaraderie that he felt when he was in the military. He said he found a different version of that in emergency medical care and looks forward to the time after patients are dropped off to get to know his crew a little more each time.

And there are plenty of co-workers to get to know with a group of more than 30 helicopter pilots and more than 150 clinicians. According to Kate Gaier, the manager of media relations for Atrium Health, the total number of workers exceeds 200 teammates when some of the other departments, such as communications, are considered.

"We're one big family, we connect on the way back a lot of the time," Haynes said.

The big family also gets to see the community in a way many never get the chance to. Atrium Health has helicopters based in Hickory, Anson, Rock Hill, Concord and Charlotte, giving them a broad view of the region. When they're done delivering a patient, they often have a moment to look out and see what the community looks life from above and how each town is connected.

"This is our community, it's right here and we're supporting it. Most of us have lived here a long time, so we look at it as helping our own community and we're an asset to it," Fisher said.

He also noted that the familiarity with the community makes it more than just a mission they're on with each flight. "You feel for those people," Fisher said. 

Making a difference

While most medical emergencies don't require an airlift, having them at their disposal helps give Atrium an extended range in the case of medical emergencies. Ground transport in traditional ambulances typically are suitable for most emergencies, but there are some situations where a helicopter is the right tool for the job.

"Obviously, it's about whether we can save a life or change a life," Fisher said. "Our mission is to promote healing. You do what you're trained to do. We don't get to save everybody, but when we get to see them saved, we look forward to the chance to see them down the road."

One of those people happened to be a former Marine who fought in Vietnam. Fisher said the man had a medical emergency and needed to be airlifted, but ironically, the man later told him he was afraid of flying. But a few months later Fisher said the two were able to meet — on the ground — and talk "Marine-to-Marine," which Fisher said was something special for him.

Not every patient gets to meet their crew or has a positive outcome, but the pilots and crews of MedCenter Air know they're doing everything they can to make that possible when they're called into duty.

"It's an adrenaline rush. You have to care for people and think on your own when you're in the air," Haynes said. "You have to acknowledge miracles don't happen every day."

Still, every day is a new adventure for the crews of MedCenter Air. 

Follow Ben Gibson on Facebook and Twitter at @BenGibsonSRL

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