- Associated Press - Monday, December 14, 2015

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - For the past 33 years, Gene McGowen has started every day of his nursing career by preparing for the worst and praying for the best.

But he’s not the only one.

McGowen is just one of Shriners Hospital for Children’s specially trained flight nurses that make up the hospital’s air transport program that have helped bring almost 1,500 patients to the Galveston burn hospital since 1985.

“We take care of people’s greatest, most precious resource - their children,” McGowen told the Galveston County Daily News (https://bit.ly/1OSeXic). “We’re blessed to do that.”

Flight nurses are not called on every day, but when they are, emotions are high and there’s always a lot at stake.

Sometimes all they have is basic emergency room information about a patient they’ve never seen or met before - and all they can take is their two-person team and equipment to efficiently fit into a small aircraft.

The two-person team usually consists of a nurse and a respiratory therapist or a Level 2 physician, and they are strategically screened through an extensive interview process before ever becoming eligible, officials said.

But before flying, they also have to take into account the weight of themselves, their equipment and the patient on the stretcher to make sure it’s not too much for the small aircraft.

“We’re working in extremely small spaces,” said Ronald Mlcak, a flight nurse at Shriners.

And not with any extra resources besides themselves, he said.

All while making sure the patient is calm, stable and ready to be admitted immediately to Shriners’ emergency room.

A call for a flight nurse usually comes when a patient’s condition needs special, immediate attention or because the patient is too far away to be quickly accessed by ambulance.

“When we’re called, it typically means a patient is more than 150 miles away,” Mlcak said.

Today, Shriners flight nurses travel all across the United States, but also as far as Venezuela, Yucatan, Belize, Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, and most frequently, Mexico.

More times than not, the type of travel involved are to a small, remote community or village. Many of the residents in those villages have never seen or flown in a helicopter or airplane until the nurses arrive, he said.

Others have never been around the advanced technology and medical tools that flight nurses travel with in order to stabilize and transport an injured patient once they arrive.

Several of Shriners’ flight nurses can remember times being in a small town, surrounded by the entire community just looking on, watching what they were doing.

“As a nurse, you don’t typically get that kind of attention,” Mlcak said.

But in many situations, they’re that small glimmer of hope that a broken home or community needs to believe in, said Clayton Collins, a registered nurse and clinical education coordinator at Shriners.

“A lot of parents of the injured child may have lost their house and everything in it or even other family members in the fire that injured the child we’re there to treat,” Mlcak said.

So, besides caring for the child, flight nurses also have to keep in mind the traumatic situation and provide compassion to family members as well. Because when transporting their child, they are able to take one parent along, he said.

“They place all of their hope in our hands,” Mlcak said.

Angel Martinez, who worked as a flight nurse for years can remember a time when the aircraft was so small one of the child’s parents wasn’t able to ride along with them, but it was so urgent that the child be transported as soon as possible.

“I told them about my children and said that for today, I had another child and would care for him like my own,” Martinez said.

And while compassion is a trait essential to being a nurse, quick thinking and the ability to handle a high-stress environment, often with life or death consequences, is essential.

“You have to be able to work in a team,” McGowen said. “You learn to trust each other - you have to trust you will have one another’s back.”

All of the stress and uncertainties is all worth it when a flight nurse gets to see a child get better and heal months, and even years, after their injury, he said.

“To see a child walk out of here when you didn’t know if they ever would - that’s what makes it all worthwhile,” McGowen said. “Sticking together and working together when things get hard and seem impossible, seeing that child and family together again is what it’s all about.”


Information from: The Galveston County Daily News, https://www.galvnews.com

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