TRI-COUNTY — Katie Nelson, the new kid on the block at the Air Evac Lifeteam 79 in Corbin, said she always knew becoming a flight nurse is what she wanted to do with her career and as soon as the position came open, she applied. Now more than a year in, she’s part of a team that is the largest independently owned and operated membership-supported air ambulance service in the United States.
On a particularly hot Tuesday in August, Nelson and her team, which includes Pilot Scott Rosenbalm and flight paramedic Tommy Matney, all agree that while in the middle of a global pandemic when most everything has been turned upside down or altered in some way, things for the crew haven’t really changed that much.
Air Evac Lifeteam Program Director Joe Bradshaw said the program has felt some of the impact of COVID-19, but operationally the flight crews remain steadfast and their numbers haven’t changed much.
Flight crews, consisting of a pilot, flight nurse and flight paramedic, are on duty seven days a week to respond to the scene of an emergency or provide transportation between medical facilities. And pre-COVID, policies and procedures were already in place for infectious diseases so the crew’s measures didn’t have to change too much.
“We always try to play on the safe side,” said Bradshaw.
Sitting in the team's day room, Nelson echoed that, adding that the high rate of false negatives keeps crew members always prepared for the worse case scenario.
Matney, who has been in the field for decades, said the flight numbers haven’t seen a major increase or decrease since COVID. In fact a large number of the COVID patients he transports are being transported for issues with other diagnoses, but the patients have just also tested positive for COVID.
“Even though some of the patients might test positive for COVID that might not be the reason we’re transporting them,” said Matney.
But no two days are the same for team members. Like anything else there are busy days where the crew spends much of their time in the air and some days not much is going on.
Bradshaw describes it as hours of boredom shattered by seconds of terror, a saying familiar to emergency medicine. And some of those times of terror leave the seasoned healthcare professionals needing an outlet for stress.
Both Matney and Rosenbalm said the key is to leave the job at the job. While all crew members are compassionate, they’ve simply learned — and it took some time learning — that it’s better to not take the stress of the job home. However each individual will tell you they have their ways of dealing with the stress of the trauma they see.
Rosenbalm and Shawn Bailey don’t say too much but both are vital to the safety of the program. Bailey is one of the most important individuals to the flight teams, he’s the mechanic and Bradshaw commends the work he does.
As the pilot, Rosenbalm is quick to say he just gets his team from one place to another safely, but all agree it is truly a team effort.
The Air Evac Lifeteam was established in 1985 by a group of citizens in West Plains, Missouri with a goal to provide air medical transportation and ensure access to emergency health care for their remote community in the Missouri Ozark region. Although air ambulances were primarily based in metropolitan areas at the time, the company founders believed that the people who needed air medical transport the most were those living in rural areas, often far away from a hospital — like some areas that neighbor the Tri-County.