A helicopter chops through the darkness, flying swiftly over the Atlantic towards the glow of the Boston skyline. At its helm, pilot John Benvenuti searches the horizon through night-vision goggles and steadies the aircraft in the tempestuous ocean air. Just behind him, a young man lays strapped to a gurney, wrapped like a baked potato in a silver emergency blanket. He fades in and out of consciousness as paramedic, Erica Puopolo, and nurse, Sue McGahn, manage his pain and monitor his vitals.
In forty-five minutes, the helicopter buzzes by the Bunker Hill Monument, then past the Zakim Bridge, and darts to Mass General Hospital. Benvenuti sights the illuminated landing pad, puts his craft in a hover, and then adroitly finesses it down towards the perch high above the busy streets. “One minute out,” he calmly informs his crew over the intercom. Just before touching down, Puopolo catches a glimpse of the helicopter off Mass General’s mirror façade. It’s an imposing aircraft. With skids down, a medical team spills out from the building’s doorway. McGahn slides open the door, and the patient is ferried across the landing zone, and into the hands of waiting physicians and a better chance of survival.
“There are two things that all our patients have in common,” says Boston MedFlight CEO and Medical Director, Dr. Suzanne Wedel, “they are the sickest of the sick, and they never thought they were going to need us when they woke up in the morning.”
For twenty-seven years, Boston MedFlight, an independent non-profit based in Hanscom Air Force Base, has transported around 3,000 critically ill or injured patients per year, from over 4,000 landing zones dotting the East Coast. Eighty-five percent of the time, MedFlight’s helicopters, jets and ambulances transport patients from one hospital to another. More severe—although less frequent—calls require landing on the scene of an accident, what Dr. Wedel says, “You see on the evening news.” Of those 3,000 or so annual transports, about 250 of them are flying from Nantucket. “We are Nantucket’s lifeline,” Dr. Wedel says. “Nantucket Cottage Hospital does a remarkable job, but all hospitals can’t be all things to all people.”
So when Nantucketer Dorothy Verney needed an emergency pacemaker, or two weeks later when islander Nancy Newhouse awoke with a 105-degree temperature due to a severe infection, the Cottage Hospital called in MedFlight. “We could not live on Nantucket without MedFlight,” says Nancy Newhouse. “You don’t really think about it until it happens to you. But now anytime I hear that helicopter overhead, I say a prayer, because there is someone on island who really needs help desperately and immediately.” As Nantucket doctor, Greg Hinson, explains, “We use MedFlight for ambulance transport of cases that require evaluation and treatment in tertiary care centers, such as the teaching hospitals in Boston. Some examples include acute cardiac events, sick babies, trauma cases, and severe infections needing ICU care.” He adds, “Having Medflight available most of the time (island weather can prevent MedFlight from flying) is key to being able to offer the best care for my patients and, as such, the service is invaluable to me as a physician…but further, having MedFlight available is even more important to me as an island resident and a father.”
MedFlight crews are elite not only in delivering critical medical care, but doing so in the direst situations—while also flying in a helicopter. Each member of the team possesses credentials that cannot be captured in a framed diploma or fancy title. Rather their strength lies in both time-earned and innate skill. Take pilot John Benvenuti: After a decade flying in the U.S. Military, Benvenuti did a three-year tour airlifting for the EMT in Ohio. He has since been with Boston MedFlight, marking his ninth year behind the helm this past June. When asked if he can recount a particularly harrowing flight to Nantucket, he responds curtly, “No.” Benvenuti is a tactician, executing his job systematically and with the deliberateness and efficiency of a nail gun. When a call reaches him, no information is given about the patient or the nature of their emergency—a policy MedFlight refers to as “100% patient-blind call.” “This is to allow the pilot to make his or her aviation decision without the burden of knowing what type of patient we are going for,” Benvenuti explains. The decision to go or not to go is thus based upon weather, winds, distance and location. From there, Benvenuti’s sole job is to transport the patient as safely and quickly as possible.
Treating patients in the helicopter’s berth are nurses like Susan McGahn. A fourteen-year veteran R.N., McGahn served in various ICUs and ERs prior to joining MedFlight six years ago. Much like Benvenuti, McGahn and her paramedic and EMT counterparts maintain unshakeable composure while caring for desperately ill and injured patients. Working amidst the din of chopping blades in the rigid confines of an aircraft, their actions readily determine the difference between life and death. As was the case when McGahn was on a flight transporting a man to Boston Hospital for a cardiac catheterization: “As we were placing him on our cardiac monitors and defibrillation pads, I noticed a cardiac arrhythmia and then several seconds later the patient went into cardiac arrest.” McGahn and the paramedic went to work on the man, quickly bringing him back to life. “The reason this call sticks with me is because the patient’s wife was present for the entire resuscitation. She saw firsthand that her husband might die.”
“I think it is impossible to completely detach from the tragic calls,” continues McGahn. “You have sympathy and empathy for others and it is difficult to not feel the pain of a patient’s family.” Erica Puopolo echoes these sentiments saying that, “The best way to survive in this job is to try and compartmentalize your feelings. However, I am human, I am a mom, and yes, there are times that it can be difficult to detach.” Despite the valiant service they provide, no one in MedFlight touts him or herself as a hero. Although they receive letter after letter thanking them for, “Saving my life,” there is no ego among the crew. Rather they respond in the way of all true heroes, “I was just doing my job.”
For islanders and vacationers alike, Nantucket is about getting away from it all. Yet only in times of severe medical emergency does the true remoteness of this place come into focus. Luckily, we have Boston MedFlight—people you never want to meet, but are happy that you know. They afford us piece of mind, and, when possible, provide us a lifeline to the world we tried to leave behind.