Anatomy of a Flight Nurse

By Gary P Bryant

It looks exciting. The jet-powered helicopter screams across the sky, heading towards Harborview Medical Center with another critically-ill patient on board. Friends and family will probably say later that "he's lucky to be alive". The reality is that the person is alive because of the skills and talents of emergency flight nurses like Erin Reed.

Born in Bellflower, and raised in Petaluma California, Erin Reed, 46, is doing what she does best: emergency medical services (EMS). "This is my passion," says Reed, "It was what I was meant to do." Coworkers won't argue with that. According to friend and fellow flight nurse Sandra Koopman, "In critical situations, things can move very fast. Erin has the ability to focus in on the situation without being distracted."

A former paramedic with the Marin County Fire Department, Reed now relishes her career as a flight nurse with Airlift Northwest, the region's primary emergency air transport organization.

To be a flight nurse for Airlift Northwest is no small achievement. All medical personnel are registered nurses and all are required to have advanced life support training with a minimum of five years critical care experience.

Started as an adjunct to the Medic One paramedic system of King County, Airlift Northwest now provides emergency air services primarily to Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, with additional flights to other states and Canada. Airlift Northwest flies four Agusta A109 helicopters based in Seattle, Arlington, Bellingham and Puyallup. Lear jets are located in Seattle and Juneau with a Commander GC690C based in Wenatchee.

Each helicopter flies with a pilot and two nurses. Reed enjoys the camaraderie. "You definitely need to be a team player to be in this line of work. You work together, you support each other and decompress together. You spend more time with these people than you do at home."

Reed hadn't always wanted to be in Emergency Services. "I originally wanted to be a doctor, but I changed my mind after the fire."

The 'fire' she refers to is a tragic episode of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Upon arriving at a party that had gotten out of hand, Reed saw a Molotov cocktail explode right in front of her. The experience changed her life. There were weeks of painful skin graft surgeries followed by a long period of physical therapy. Her physical therapist suggested she learn to ski, since that would aid in her recovery, particularly for her badly injured hands and wrists.

She moved to Colorado and immersed herself in the sport. Her grandfather was a fire chief there and that's when she got interested in becoming an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) . She has never looked back.

Reed thinks that she's got the attitude and qualities needed for emergency services. "I'm direct and I'm not afraid of conflict," she says. "But you also have to be a team player and be able to make decisions and stand by them," she adds.

Reed also believes that nurses should be politically involved. She is a passionate patient advocate. "One of the hallmarks of nursing is patient advocacy," Reed says, "when we have the opportunity to speak up, we should do it not only for ourselves, but for the public we represent."

When she was the only woman in an all male fire department in Marin County (the only woman to pass the physical exam), she still concentrated on doing the job. "You need to prove yourself , everybody does." Says Reed, "If I didn't think I was as good as the best, I wouldn't have stayed."

Reed offers some good advice for anybody getting into emergency services. "Get a mentor," she insists. "Find some one with experience that you respect and learn what you can."

Reed also says it's a good idea to get some experience in the field before committing to more specialized training, she says, reflecting on her own strategy. "Get some education, get some experience, discover your interest and build on it."

What's the most satisfying part about the job for Reed? "Knowing that when I get one of those critically ill patients to the hospital alive - that they wouldn't have made it without me."

About the Author: Gary Bryant, a consumer health advocate, is the executive producer of the award winning web resource, He is also the author of Searching the Web for Health: A Guide to Finding Reliable Medical Information on the Internet

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