Onboard a medical emergency
helicopter, there are no residents, no doctors, and
There are a couple of flight nurses and a pilot.
Karla Dillard, a flight nurse at University of
Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for 11 years, says each
member of the small crew needs strong skills, a
certain fearless independence, and an abundance
of grace under pressure.
“We face life-and-death emergencies all the
time,” Dillard says. “But we trust each
other and rely on each other, whatever comes our
Dillard works for the University’s AirCare
program, which celebrates 25 years of air ambulance
flight this year. For many critically ill or injured
people in a good part of the Midwest, the program
is the difference between life and death. For Dillard
and her colleagues—including four pilots, 13
other flight nurses, and two mechanics—it’s
a job. But it’s a job they wouldn’t trade
for anything in the world.
“I have to admit I was attracted to the job
at first because of the adrenalin rush of flying,” says
Rick Ogren, a flight nurse with 13 years of experience
and more than 1,600 flights. “But more than
anything, it’s the corny nurse thing—I
like helping people.”
Ogren and Dillard say they never know what a day
will bring. They spend much of their time working
in the emergency room, covering triage and assisting
patients wherever they can, until flight calls come
in over their radios. Some days, they get several
calls; others, none. When a call comes in, they can
be in the air in five minutes, Dillard says.
the way to an accident scene, the crew keeps
in touch by radio with physicians in the Emergency
Treatment Center and intensive care units in
University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Their black-and-white helicopter ambulance is packed
with almost 300 pounds of neatly arranged supplies
and get-up-and-go technology. The helicopter is equipped
so flight nurses can stabilize patients en route
to the hospital.
“We’re registered nurses whose training
is beyond that of a critical care nurse, so we can
intervene in almost any kind of emergency,” Ogren
Inside the helicopter, a pilot and two flight nurses
work inside a space smaller than the interior of
a Volkswagen Beetle. Next to the pilot’s seat,
there’s a stretcher that looks barely big enough
for one patient. Ogren says the tight space brings
out the meaning of teamwork.
“Things can get intense at 3,000 to 4,000
feet in the air, and that’s when the closely
knit world of the flight crew really starts to shrink,” he
says. “But that’s also when we pull together.”
Ogren says the helicopter enables staff at University
of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to save lives that
otherwise might be lost. With the advantage of speed
and no intersections or backed-up traffic, the helicopter
greatly cuts out-of-hospital time for patients. Doctors
say the first hour after a traumatic event is critical.
“Emergency medical specialists call it the
Golden Hour,” Ogren says. “People who
have been severely injured stand a much better chance
of surviving if we can get to them and start giving
them care within 60 minutes after their accident.”
Mike Hull, one of the hospital’s four pilots,
says helicopter flying takes enormous concentration.
Unlike an airplane, a helicopter cannot right itself—which
makes his job much like trying to balance a wheelchair
on bowling balls, as he remembers AirCare lead pilot
Don Crowl once putting it.
“It’s a trade-off, because you’ve
got the tremendous advantage of being able to get
in and out of almost any situation, but you can’t
take your hands off the controls for even a split
second,” says Hull, who received most of his
training in the Army.
Occasionally, Ogren chances upon old acquaintances
and neighbors whose loved ones he has seen die in
terrible accidents. Having grown up southeast of
Iowa City in the small town of Lone Tree and then
earning his undergraduate degree at The University
of Iowa, he says it’s a sad thing that’s
bound to happen. But he’s also had families
thank him after a crisis for his help.
“We’re only human,” Ogren says. “It’s
difficult to prepare ourselves for the sad or stressful
situations we face. But when a call comes in, we
just go out and do our job. I don’t feel like
it’s extraordinary. It’s just what we
by Gary Kuhlmann