Paramedics of the sky
“These guys are heroes,” helicopter pilot Dan Brooks says behind the backs of his co-workers, flight nurses for California Shock and Trauma Air Rescue. He says they’ll never admit it themselves. Flight nurses are the paramedics by way of the air, who offer rapid-rescue and hospital-transfer services in the Lilliputian space of a chopper. I met five-year flight nurse veteran, Rocklin resident Rich Ikerd, at the end of his 24-hour shift at the Jackson base last week.
Tell me about the helicopter.
I think the general perception is that we have a massive, open, airy helicopter that you’ve got room to move around. We’re very cramped and crowded in there. It’s small, it’s light. We basically manage to stuff an [emergency room] and [intensive-care unit] combined into a small space. The principles we work under are twofold: one is rapid transport; two, trauma center. Going from here to UC Davis, for example, by ground ambulance with code-3 lights and sirens would take an hour, whereas it would take us 18 to 20 minutes from right here.
What did you do before being a flight nurse?
I was in the E.R. for 13 years before I started flying. This is what I wanted to do when I started nursing school, so this was my ultimate goal. Took me a while—more than enough years of experience to do it—but it’s always what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t trade it.
Do you have to be kind of an adrenaline junkie to work in situations with so much at stake?
I think you need that inherently in your personality, but you can’t be consumed by that. You can’t be Ricky Rescue, who wants to run out in bad weather and run into burning houses and that kind of stuff. You have to be pretty calm as well. You have to like the adrenaline rush of it, but you have to stay on top of it. People who come into this spun up on the adrenaline rush don’t seem to do real well.
When you started your training for CalSTAR, was that the first time you’d been in a helicopter? And did you pee in your flight suit?
Yes. And no. I was worried that I might get airsick, and that didn’t happen, either.
What’s the service range for this base?
Amador, El Dorado County, Calaveras, parts of Stanislaus, parts of San Joaquin, Alpine, parts of Sacramento County. We go to Placer County sometimes—a pretty big area. Our [other] bases are located so we all back each other up.
What’s the scariest part of this gig?
Having a really critical patient who’s circling the drain, and you have to get a lot done in a very short time. … There’re some inherently scary parts about flying around in a helicopter, especially at night and with iffy weather. Hats off to our pilots. …
The company’s built a lot of added safety features into our operations. We have GPS systems. We have satellite phone, six radios, fly with night-vision goggles—the newest generation, military grade—and we have very stringent weather minimums. So we couldn’t do what we do without our pilots being as good as they are, and I don’t think any of us take that for granted, especially when we’ve got a really sick patient.
You have a lot of downtime at the base?
We work 10 a.m. to 10 a.m. shifts … [so] we do. We have some shifts, like yesterday, with the storm blowing through, so we couldn’t fly. We spent the whole shift filling out paperwork, studying. A lot of the newer nurses spend a lot of downtime studying [for] certification exams. … We had a shift a few years ago: We had nine flights—canceled on several of those—just up and down all day, all night. So you never know.
There’s been a stigma in the past for men being nurses. Is it less so for flight nurses?
I’m old, so it was much more prevalent when I started out. It’s not as prevalent even in the hospital now as it used to be.
What’s the percentage of males and females who do flight nursing?
It’s pretty heavily slanted toward male. Every base in the company has a fair amount of females. I’d say it’s probably 60-40 male to female.
What’s one of the craziest calls you’ve seen?
Probably the craziest—I actually wasn’t on the crew that day—was a man that amputated his own penis. I don’t know if you want to print that. That was the really the most bizarre. I’ve done a lot: shootings; stabbings; car crashes; cars crashed into canals, rivers; a prisoner once, in a cell, set himself on fire; horseback accidents; things like that.
You must have a strong mental constitution to be seeing trauma like that on a daily basis.
None of us like to see it, but you get used to it, to a certain extent. As far as seeing anyone injured, I think pretty much across the board for all of us, kids are the worst. I hate to see a hurt kid. Most of us have kids, and it’s tough, but you have to set that aside.