Flight physician: 'Emergency room with wings'
I'm a flight physician with the University of Wisconsin Hospitals helicopter program -- Medflight located in Madison, Wisconsin.
Our flight crew consists of a doctor, nurse and pilot. Being a flight doc is an interesting niche. In the United States, most of the 250 or so medical-flight programs are staffed with paramedics or nurses.
Only a handful employ attending-level, emergency-medicine trained physicians. We transport critically ill and injured patients from outlying hospitals and accident scenes. I work out of a specially equipped, state-of-the-art, Augusta 109 helicopter -- an emergency room with wings.
Years in position
I have 12 years as a flight physician, nine with Medflight.
Too much. I became an EMT (emergency medical technician) at age 20. I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering at Ohio State University before I even thought of going to med school. Add four years of medical school at the University of Cincinnati and another four years of specialty training in emergency medicine and aeromedical transport at the University of Chicago. College was the best 15 years of my life.
How many hours do you work per week?
In this type of work -- we're open for business 24-7 -- there are no such things as holidays or weekends. About the only thing that can keep us down is bad weather.
What's the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?
We usually get together for a crew briefing. We discuss aircraft and equipment issues. We then try to have some coffee if there are no flights pending.
What time do you have lunch? What do you usually eat?
I usually grab lunch when I can between flights. I'm a vegetarian. I mainly eat at our hospital cafeteria which, in my opinion, has pretty good food.
What time do things get tense around the office? What makes it that way?
This type of job naturally attracts strong-willed and independent people. Obviously there will be differences of opinion and personality conflicts. But this seldom, if ever, happens in critical situations. In this business, most of the people are at their very best when the going gets rough.
If you're having a good day at work, what is it that makes it good?
Firemen dream of fighting the big blaze. Police look forward to the big chase. I get great satisfaction from taking care of critically ill patients in an amazing variety of conditions and situations.
It's a strange dichotomy. On a good day, we have lots of flights. This in turn means that there are many injured or ill people out there. I would never wish harm or illness to any person -- but if a major accident or incident or catastrophe is going to happen, I want to be there to help. This is why I trained so long and hard.
How much work, if any, do you take home?
None. I punch the clock.
What does your work contribute to society?
I help keep some people around -- who otherwise would not be long for this world.
Do you expect to finish your working life in this career?
I certainly hope so.
If you could have two more careers, what would they be?
I'd be a dolphin trainer at Sea World or a bluegrass banjo player.
What's an unforgivable trait in a colleague?
"Hotdog" or "cowboy" behavior among emergency medical personnel -- it's usually a sign of insecurity and/or poor skills.
What do you do to relieve stress?
I live in the country on 10 acres. There's always something to fix and chores to be done. My wife and I operate a no-kill animal shelter from our property with over 250 cats and 50 dogs. It's a wonderful thing but a lot of work.
Then there are the children ... wait a minute: I work Medflight for my stress relief!
I really like the people I work with. I love the job.
What have you been reading lately?
I'm currently reading Dr. Seuss (for the 100th time or so). He was a genius in every sense of the word.
When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work?
This job puts things in perspective. Especially since the events of September 11. It's hard to get upset over a flooded basement or a flat tire when earlier that day you had to break the news to parents that their two children were just killed in a car accident.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) I routinely see bad things happen to innocent people whose only fault is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm constantly reminded of how precious life and good health are -- and just how quickly it can all disappear for no apparent reason.
I eat dessert first. Carpe diem.
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