Flight for Life – a life story
SUMMIT COUNTY – After more than a decade with Flight for Life, David Kearns has seen a lot of trauma. Rather than becoming demoralized, however, Kearns said he’s inspired “to be the best part of your worst day.”
“People are going to have tragedies. They’re going to have accidents. Those are landmark events in their lives,” he said. “We have the potential to come in and minimize those effects if we can.”
Kearns remembers responding to an ice climber who had fallen while climbing Mount Powell near Vail. The climber was an -ray technician at Summit Medical Center, where Kearns and other Flight for Life crews often are based.
“We were able to get her off the mountain and down to the hospital,” he recalled. “She had a prolonged recovery period and numerous surgeries,” but she has since recovered.
Kearns has been a flight nurse with St. Anthony Hospitals’ Flight for Life program for 14 years – almost half the time the program has existed.
This weekend, hospital officials are celebrating the Flight for Life’s 30th birthday, but Kearns said there’s no time for employees to stop and pat themselves on the back.
“We would like to consider ourselves as leaders in the field and to be innovative, so we work to keep ourselves sharp,” he said.
The orange helicopter is a common sight in Summit County, where the Flight for Life base at Summit Medical Center is the highest medical helicopter base in the nation.
In addition to the helicopter stationed in Frisco, another is based at St. Anthony’s in Denver, and two turboprop airplanes and a Learjet are based at the Centennial Airport in Englewood.
According to Kearns, each Flight for Life helicopter can fly at 140 mph and can respond to emergencies within a 100-mile radius of its base. The one in Summit County flies “almost anywhere between Denver and Grand Junction” and has responded to calls as far away as Crested Butte, Craig and Alamosa. It usually takes only 20 to 25 minutes to fly between Summit County and Denver.
The turboprops serve states within a 400-mile radius – Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, New Mexico and Utah. The Learjet, which flies at 356 mph, can fly nonstop from coast to coast.
Kearns is one of only 19 flight nurses with Flight for Life. In addition to nurses, crews also include pilots, paramedics, helicopter mechanics, emergency medical technicians and communications specialists. All employees rotate through the various Flight for Life bases, Kearns said.
Being a flight nurse combines all the challenges nurses encounter in hospitals with the added challenges of flying, variable weather and the unknown, Kearns said.
“I think most of us tend to look at the work we do in the helicopters as probably the most dramatic – the most challenging,” he said. “The mountains present challenges to aviation that you don’t find in other parts of the country. The backcountry areas of the mountains are unique, because they provide a level of recreation that quite often finds people in trouble.”
Kearns said it is the chance to save another person’s life and possibly minimize the chance of a disability that make the job so rewarding.
“In any aspect of health care, you are being invited into somebody else’s life to help them,” he said. “In this particular field, when we are involved with emergency care, you’re being asked to enter somebody’s life at a time when they really need you.
Since its inception 30 years ago, the Flight for Life program has been the model for some 200 air ambulance programs worldwide. It remains the biggest and busiest critical care air transport program in Colorado, officials said, and Flight for Life performs more mountain rescues than any other similar program in the state.
The Flight for Life program is funded by donations, receiving no state or federal funding. For more information on Flight for Life, visit the Web site at http://www.stanthonyhosp.org.
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