As occupations go, there aren’t many that Puebloan J.C. Taylor would choose over the one he has now. Every day, he said, is different, has new challenges and an air of the unknown. He can never predict how events in someone else’s life will impact his own. But he does have some idea of how he might impact other people’s lives. Taylor is Assistant Nurse Manager at Pueblo’s St. Mary-Corwin’s and Caῆon City’s St. Thomas More’s Flight for Life.
“I’ve been flying since 2009,” said Taylor. He’s part of a Flight for Life team that covers the entire state. Interestingly, the Centura-owned Flight for Life, is the inspiration for more than three hundred similar operations in the U.S. and around the world. It launched in October 1972 in Denver at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
When Taylor or other Flight for Life crew members get a call, they need to be ready for lift-off quickly. “We want to make sure we’re moving promptly to the helicopter within five to eight minutes,” he said. And there is no typical call. A crew can as easily respond to a life-threatening highway accident, a pregnancy that needs special attention or something completely unique.
This flight-trained nurse no longer counts the number of missions he’s been on. But a safe guess, he said, is somewhere around 120-150 a year. They’re divided between chopper, fixed-wing aircraft and ground ambulances. Taking off from Pueblo, he’s found himself picking up or dropping off patients in neighboring as close as New Mexico and as distant as Montana. “We take them where they’re supposed to go.”
“It’s a unique fraternity and takes a very unique person to do this job,” said Taylor. “You have to be on top of your game. It’s so much more than jumping into a helicopter and flying.”
While there have been periodic Flight for Life or other similar operations that have tragically ended, Taylor has never wavered in his own confidence nor that of the pilots and crew who fly with him. That doesn’t mean, however, he doesn’t remember more than a few moments of uncertainty.
“Bird strikes,” he said with a slight chuckle, can get your attention. In an understated way, the Pueblo-based nurse said they “are never fun.” Hitting birds while flying at top speed “scares the heck out of you,” comparing it to “a shot going off.” But pilots, he said, are well trained.
Then there’s weather; always a concern when flying for work whether you’re in a place like Colorado or any other place. It can change quickly. But Taylor said the fall is one of the more pleasant times to be in the air.
“We have radar in the helicopters,” he said. “We can see the big green blobs (weather cells on the screen). We try and avoid them, go around them or land if we have to. It can happen.”
Flight for Life along with the many others who have modeled themselves after it, have saved countless lives in Colorado and elsewhere over the years. But it is a business and needs to follow the same plan as any other if it wants to remain in business. It needs to remain in the black and that can be expensive for people who rely on it.
Helicopters are not inexpensive. Lifting off---even for only for a quick trip---can cost upward of $10,000. Then there’s also a cost-per-mile which can easily exceed $100 or more per mile.
A 2016 National Public Radio story recounted the experience of one Montana mother whose baby was suffering heart failure and an air ambulance was her only hope. The baby survived but the bill for the trip was shocking. It totaled nearly $56,000. And insurance doesn’t always cover the costs. Some state legislatures have taken up this issue to put limits on what may be charged.
But in times of extreme urgency, very few people are thinking about the expense. And crew focus is on just one thing: doing everything it can do to help the patient. Still, it’s hard not to retrace a mission over and over in your mind. “There is an emotional toll,” said Taylor. The ones “that take the most out of you,” he said, are “the ones that you put everything you’ve got” into them. “You get stuck at a point where there’s nothing else you can do until you’re just exhausted and no more resources. Those are the hardest ones.”