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Jerry Davich: UCAN medical chopper: ‘Angels on helicopters’

Kelley Holdren Dyer chief flight nurse UCAN medical helicopter pilot John Neilsawait their first call Wednesday hospital's rooftop heliport. |

Kelley Holdren of Dyer, chief flight nurse on the UCAN medical helicopter, and pilot John Neilson, await their first call Wednesday on the hospital's rooftop heliport. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 20, 2013 6:07AM



Kelley Holdren has seen just about everything as chief flight nurse for the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, or UCAN.

The suicide attempt survivor who shot off most of his face, and lived. The double amputation of a crash victim’s legs, performed on the Borman Expressway. Burn victims from a house fire. And an abused child who went into full cardiac arrest and later died.

Still, the 38-year-old Dyer woman told me, “I always wanted to be a flight nurse and I’m loving every minute of flying in the sky.”

Like most UCAN staff members, Holdren has a type-A personality, meaning she has a passion for her job that often consumes her. She checks and double-checks everything, from patient charts to helicopter pre-flight checklists.

“Details are a crucial part of our job,” Holdren said while waiting for her next chopper flight to transport a patient.

UCAN, the vaunted air medical service for the University of Chicago Medicine, treats and transports countless pediatric patients each year, many from Northwest Indiana, which lacks a level one trauma center. Some of those children get flown via UCAN’s medical helicopter to Comer Children’s Hospital, while others get air-lifted to other specialized hospitals in South Bend, Indianapolis or other states.

Last Wednesday, I shadowed the UCAN crew for a 10-hour shift, including a late-night flight to transport a critically ill newborn back to the University of Chicago facility. That newborn survived its serious medical crisis and is now receiving the specialized care it needs.

In my Sunday column (which can be viewed at the Post-Tribune website), I noted that UCAN is celebrating its 30-year anniversary this year. The program uses a 1989 Dauphin-365 twin-engine helicopter to treat and transport the sickest and most complex trauma patients. At least one patient a day comes from our region, and on busy days the UCAN staff handles up to seven flights across the Chicago metro area.

“This is still emergency medicine with little time to waste. It’s just done in the air,” explained Bob Hayes, a UCAN communications dispatcher who’s a former firefighter and paramedic.

The UCAN chopper has a cruising speed of 180 miles per hour while carrying a physician, nurse and pilot to hospitals, heliports and emergency landing zones on a 24-7 basis. (For more info, visit the UCAN website and Facebook page.)

The average time from a dispatch call to the chopper liftoff is roughly 17 minutes, though the staff’s record time is four minutes.

“Communication is everything for us,” said Steve Espinoza, a six-year UCAN communications specialist while working a 12-hour shift in the hospital’s basement office.

Flanked by old-school maps on the walls and newer high-tech computers, he can track exactly where the UCAN chopper is flying at any given minute. He also can keep an eye on the docked chopper on the rooftop heliport, via surveillance video.

Espinoza and Hayes, as well as the other communications specialists, are the eyes and ears of the program. When that 6-year-old Illinois boy was swallowed by Mount Baldy last month, making national headlines, Espinoza and Hayes quietly coordinated all the needed details to transport the boy to Comer Children’s Hospital.

“That was one busy day,” Hayes told me in between calls last week.

UCAN has a staff of eight flight nurses, five communications specialists, two mechanics, four pilots (with a need for one more), 32 emergency room residents, and physicians. The company is co-operated by Air Methods, a national firm that manages nearly 400 helicopters across the country.

In all, there are roughly 900 medical aircraft in the skies in this country, including choppers and fixed-wing vessels. When UCAN is too busy to accept a mission, it makes referrals to other medical chopper agencies, such as Lifestar in Joliet or Memorial MedFlight in South Bend.

Calls from Northwest Indiana typically come from fire departments, police personnel, or Prompt Ambulance Service, Holdren noted. The UCAN chopper has landed on closed-down highways, empty football fields and industrial parks in this region.

Unlike with traditional brick-and-mortar hospital settings, UCAN flight nurses can do most everything a doctor can do, medically speaking. UCAN pilots are not mandated to have a medical background but they routinely assist nurses during patient transports.

“We help at the scene, help unload the gurney, and help package the patient,” said pilot, Ron Doerler, who’s been with UCAN less than a year and loves his job. “It can really get your heart pumping.”

Another pilot, John Neilson, who has 40 years of flying experience, told me, “When we fly overhead, to people on the ground it’s either the sound of noise or the sound of life.”

Usually, it’s the sound of life, according to reader feedback from my Sunday column and previous posts on my social media sites regarding UCAN’s familiar red chopper.

“I hear it go over my house a lot and, every time I do, I say a prayer for the victim and the attendants,” said Holly Jascoviak of Merrillville.

“Two of my kids have unfortunately been on the UCAN,” said Jennifer Stockton of Cedar Lake. “I was in awe at the crew and could not have felt more comfortable in a terrible situation each time. Those are some amazing people.”

“They are more like angels on helicopters,” said Peggy Byarlay-Tenorio of Lake Station.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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