Slideshow: A day in the life of an air ambulance crew

A flight photographer’s PR assignment quickly changes as he captures the response to a serious medical call


By John A. Harris
EMS1 Contributor

From patient transfers to vehicle crashes, from weather disasters to industrial accidents, never knowing what each day will bring is one of the lures of being an EMS provider.

And working on an air ambulance is no exception.

My assignment as a flight photographer and writer was to document a typical day for University of Michigan Survival Flight, one of the top air ambulance organizations in the country.

I was working with seasoned professionals: Pilot Jason Reeder, a 13-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard; flight nurse and paramedic Mike Chesney with 23 years of experience; and flight nurse and paramedic Jeff Pietsch, a medic for 33 years and a nurse for 25.  

Our day started out slow and uneventful at their Livingston County Airport hangar in Howell, Mich.

We moved the EC-155 and Encore jet out of the hangar for some PR and marketing photos. The flat white clouds that covered the sky did nothing to spice up my shots, but once we took the helicopter up and headed toward Ann Arbor for some aerial images of the University of Michigan Hospital and surrounding campus, blue sky began to present itself.

I hoped I’d be able to get a shot of the other helicopter in the air with us; as a flight photographer, this is what I live for.

Change of plans  

It turns out, I got more than I bargained for.

Ten minutes into the flight we got an emergency call for a motorcycle crash. We changed course and within minutes we were circling over the accident scene ─ a two-lane highway surrounded by rows of trees, power lines and steep slopes on both sides of the road; not ideal for landing.  

Below, we could see the local EMS and law enforcement shutting down the highway. We continued to look for every imaginable obstruction to a safe landing.

The flight crew barked out all the hazards they saw to the pilot, who acknowledged their reports and checked with the ground crew. He decided to make a landing directly on the highway, as opposed to a nearby field which had its own set of hazards and patient transport issues. Slowly and precisely he lowered the aircraft, carefully avoiding the nearby trees, wires and slopes.

As soon as we hit the ground, the two nurses/medics on board ran up the road to meet up with the ground EMS. The Survival Flight aircraft was loaded with all the necessary life-support equipment, and with response time and experience on our side, I was hopeful the crew would be able to pull this motorcyclist through.

Not a traffic crash

After several minutes, the ground EMS crew and our flight nurses rushed the patient back to the aircraft where he was carefully loaded into our helicopter, while being ventilated. The pilot asked me to ride in the back with the patient and medical crew, as a counter balance.

Once the ground crew was a safe distance from the helicopter we were again airborne, and I found out this was not a traffic accident. It was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Chesney and Pietsch continued to ventilate and treat the patient, working in unison with very few words. Blood streamed from multiple points in the patient’s head, covering the floor of the helicopter.

They managed blood flow and fought to keep the patient breathing until we landed in Ann Arbor.

One of the first things I noticed about the patient was a wedding band on his finger.

I wonder what led up to his decision and if he has any children and what they will go through. I know it was his decision to take his own life, but as I sat and took it all in, I only hoped he would make it and give life a second chance.  

As we approached the landing pad, I notice the second Survival Flight helicopter was about to take off. It seemed my initial desire for an air-to-air photo opportunity was coming to fruition, but at the moment it seemed so trivial.

A man’s life hung in the balance and my only concern was that the patient got to the ER alive to receive further ALS care.  

A medical team met us immediately as we touched down. Our doors popped open and the blood lost by the patient poured from the aircraft’s drainage holes and the open doors onto the flight deck.  

It was obvious the entire trauma team had seen this many times before, and were unfazed as they transferred the patient from the aircraft and onto a waiting gurney. Both air and ground medical crews rushed the patient into the ER, where an army of medical personnel immediately went to work.

Inspiration amid an unhappy ending

Survival Flight kept the patient alive until arrival at the trauma 1 facility, where he was given some of the best emergency care available, but he died after a long battle in the ER.  

Later, one of the flight nurses told me he knew the patient would not survive, but he kept working on him, never stopping, never giving up that very slight bit of hope.

Unfortunately, some injuries are not survivable.

We returned to our aircraft on the flight deck knowing we had another task to attend to. The floors were covered in blood and before we could go back in service they had to be cleaned and disinfected. It was a grisly scene, but it was also a scene of reality.

EMS crews, land and air, deal with these tragic events every single day. Their education, skill and emotions are constantly tested, and they continue, week after week, year after year.

I am thankful that these brave and knowledgeable medical professionals are out there, on the job, for all of us.

About the author

John A. Harris is a photographer for Trident Photography, which specializes in aviation, maritime, law enforcement, military and EMS photography. View more of his work.

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