Frequently I’m queried about “why do you go fly fires?”
Occasionally, I ask myself that same question. However, this morning while out walking around the tanker base, I found some insights coming to me. Not sure it will make sense to anyone but me, but, on the other hand, I don’t think it necessarily has to make sense to anyone else.
Let me recap the past couple of months….over the winter I worked at a Georgia hospital, taking call (in-house call…which means you “sleep” in the hospital. The reality is you simply have insomnia in the hospital). Lots of good people there, the occasional person who might make your life difficult, but really a reasonable place to work for the most part. October of 2014 was the occasion of a discussion with our chief of operations (for the fire fighting outfit), when I had to commit to either “go” or “not go” out summer of 2015. I took a long time to think it through (perhaps 2 or 3 nanoseconds) before replying “yes”.
That required notifying my GA hospital that I would be leaving. In order to make sure I was done with hospital work in time to leave for fires, I had given my notice that I would be done on a Friday in May. I was anticipating a nice long week or two with nothing to do, perhaps do a bit of ag flying for my friend Joey, and be ready to leisurely leave out on fires….maybe even take a few days to go visit family, have a vacation….you know, “normal” stuff. Fate intervened. I got a phone call from RC (guy who owns the group I where I formerly worked full time) needing some help at one of his hospitals.
So, in the finest tradition of tight scheduling, I finished in GA at 10 AM on a Friday morning, drove to the airport, got in the trusty Baron and headed west….just to Mississippi. Went on call at noon, did solid call for a week, then flew back to GA to work in the office there for 3 days. Back to Mississippi, another week, back to GA for 3 days, back to MS for a week….then back to GA for 3 more days….then a (big) day of my birthday, then to Louisiana to pick up the company Baron, then to Arizona….
I’m tired just thinking of it. From late May to the end of June, I took call for 20 days, worked 9 days in the GA office, then had a great 3 days with family, then flew to AZ and was on duty for fires.
Okay, maybe that’s not a “brief recap”. During the last week of work, besides the typical volume of cases, two cases stood out. One was a lady who had multiple co-morbidities (that’s the fancy way we say “she was low sick”). Had serious intra-abdominal pathology (meaning really bad stuff) happening in her belly. She chose to undergo surgery, knowing it was her only option…but wasn’t likely to survive with or without an operation. Due to her medical condition (yeah, I know, I could tell more, but this blog is publicly accessible, and I gotta be careful) she was unable to extend her arms, which made getting IV access very difficult. During the operation, she began a rapid decline. Several CRNAs, nurses, and myself worked hard, but she ultimately went into cardiac arrest. Resuscitation went on for quite some time, and eventually I had to declare the obvious. Time of death was established. She was in her early 50s.
A mere few days later, another patient was brought to the OR in extremis…she had delivered, and as happens (thankfully rarely) she began to profusely bleed. Her OB brought her to do an emergency hysterectomy…and for quite some time we weren’t able to get a blood pressure reading. Again, the team did an outstanding job. Without boring you with details, the tide was stemmed, her peripheral perfusion returned, and she transferred to the ICU…alive.
Early the next morning I trekked to the ICU with trepidation, wondering if she would have had any neurological damage….low blood pressure, heavy bleeding, and multiple syringes of epinephrine are usually a poor prognostic sign. I was gratified that she responded, and although remained intubated she was able to write notes. Last night I heard from my CRNA buddy that she had gone home….walking and talking. Two small children will have their mother, a man has his wife, and a mother her daughter.
But, as gratifying as that is, the mileage on my personal odometer has left the brain a bit worse for wear, the emotions a bit more dampened, and the enthusiasm for more of the same diminished. The reward of the “save” fades next to the pain of the “loss”. Yes, I know, I’ve said it for years….”the patient is the one with the disease”, “I didn’t give him his problem”, “I didn’t cause his bowel to rupture”. Somehow, each time it pulls something out of me, though.
The cockpit provides an escape. When the turbine spools up, the door closes, the loader finishes, hoses disconnect, and the 802 waddles out of the pits, I’m in my own world. The harness ties me to the machine, my radio my connection to the outside world. As I go cross-country to the fire, the gauges reassure me that all is well. The drop may or may not be great, I may or may not get praise, maybe someone notices, maybe someone doesn’t. I always hate the end of the flight. I may be ready to leave the cockpit, I may be tired…but I hate the end of it. It remains my escape.