Over the past several weeks I had the privilege to shoot and produce a story about angels. These angels fly over the Piedmont of North Carolina going to where people are hurt and taking them back to one of the best hospitals in the state.
These angels have a name, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center Air Care....Baptist Air Care for short, and whether they are responding to a trauma call like a car crash, or to another hospital to pick up critically ill people, they are sometimes the ticket to another chance at life.
I spent a full shift and half of another one to make my story come to life. On the first day the only time in the air was for what the pilots call a power check, sort of a diagnostics test for the Bell 412 that Baptist Air Care flies.
On my second day with Air Care we made a trip to Mt Airy High School for a simulated car crash during a school assembly about the dangers of drunk driving.
Onboard AirCare is usually a crew of 4. The pilot and co-pilot are responsible for the safety and flight of the aircraft and they get to make the call about whether to fly or not to fly.
A Flight Nurse and Paramedic are in the back to provide patient care.
This is Flight Nurse Kathy Nelson, who after 8 years and flying 2 pregnancies to full term, is almost done with her full time stint on Air Care in trade for more weekends off.
On this flight, Paramedic Shana McCready somehow stayed out of the shots but props to her (and Kathy) for some of the great pictures.
On the way to a scene there is a lot of prep work to do. They have to get as much information about the patient as possible and prepare any equipment they know they may need for a given call.
The real call I did get to fly with Air Care on happened as the night shift came on. At Wilkes Regional Medical Center a woman went into respiratory distress during a C-Section to deliver her baby.
We flew up to Wilkes county on a trip that takes 20 minutes by air, but would have been 45 inutes or more on the ground.
A week after that flight I went back to Baptist Hospital and interviewed Kala Bullard, the patient from that flight, and got to see her baby who was brought to Baptist by ground. They are both recovering nicely and says that without Aircare she thinks she would have surely died. Ironically her mom took an Air Care flight 5 years ago, but only lived 3 days after arriving at Baptist.
And while there are a lot of Kala Bullard type stories of survival, patients beating the odds, Aircare getting them to the hospital in the "Golden Hour", there are also stories like Kala's mom, people too sick to survive, but without the effort by the medical team, who would have ever known.
And during my discussions with the AirCare crews I learned that our jobs aren't too terribly dissimilar. No, I'm not out saving lives, but I have to deal with the families after tragedies that take the lives of loved ones.
While the aircare crew gets the pleasure of a visit from surviving patients, they also remember each one that dies. From my end as a photojournalist it's rare to follow up with too many AirCare survivors because without extraordinary circumstances, it's not likely salacious enough for local news.
But as soon as someone dies from a traumatic accident, you can put money on the news crews circling in to find out what happened and why.
Take Sylvia Gibbs for example. She was found hanging from a clothesline, apparently an accident while playing near it. She was taken to the local hospital and then AirCare took her to Baptist.
I'm sure they did all they could, but it was all for naught. Sylvia passed away and I had to go with a reporter to see her mom. That's a low feeling. Every time.
It's tough when kids die. Even tougher this time because this girl was a month younger than my youngest.
I like to walk away feeling like maybe telling the story will save a life down the road, or help the family get on the path to healing or maybe raise some funds for the funeral.
The AirCare Crews like to walk away knowing they saved a life.
For the ones they can't, those are angels flying along with them over the piedmont of North Carolina.