Sunday, January 1, 2012

In the Air

On December 26th a helicopter went down in Florida, taking the life of a heart transplant surgeon, an organ procurement technician and the pilot. Although the donor heart could not be used, the intended recipient was fine and awaited another donor match.

I heard the news through a text message from my on-call partner, interrupting me two stories into the bedtime routine with my 3 year old son. “A helicopter went down going to get a heart.” The heart transplant community is a small one, this news hit close to home. Often these procurement missions include multiple transplant teams (i.e. heart, lung and abdominal) with young surgeons in training riding along. I often send my fellows or students and have gone myself.

On a rainy night in September I drove along a narrow road on the far side of the airport. I was looking for the private hangar, and once I arrived I pulled into an empty parking lot. There was a dim light on inside so I grabbed my bag and headed for the sliding glass doors. I stood in front of the door and waved my hand but the sensor was not on. I knocked and a handsome man in a flight jacket walked over and let me in. I told him I was part of the transplant team and he looked at me skeptically. I wondered if I should have identified myself as “doctor”. I was the first one there so I sat in the waiting area and helped myself to some coffee and spiked it with hot chocolate.

The last one to arrive was our heart transplant surgeon. With the team complete we carried gear to the awaiting plane. The supplies were placed in the cargo area, but the cooler would ride with the passengers. I lifted it into the cabin, I noticed it was light and empty. As the heart transplant surgeon grabbed it from me his gaze held conspicuously on my belly. Even wearing scrubs I could not conceal the fact that I was five months pregnant. He then climbed out of the plane and practically lifted me up into my seat, he was sure that I did not miss a step.

Once we were strapped and secured into our seats I studied his face and could tell there was something on his mind. I met his glance confidently and smiled slightly. He shook his head, “Do you know how dangerous this is? An entire team from Michigan was lost a few years ago. You know, I am a pilot for fun, and know a lot about aircraft. These guys are good, really good I make sure of that. You must always insist on safe transport. Never go in a prop plane and never let them take you in a helicopter.”

I took in his advice, committing it to memory. As we taxied in the darkness my mind considered the precious cargo including 2 pilots, 2 attending surgeons, 2 fellow surgeons, organ procurement specialist and myself. Then I thought of my patient that we were leaving behind, in the CCU on a balloon pump desperate for a new life. Finally, as we sped down the runway and I felt the first few bumps of flight I placed my hands on my belly and said a little prayer. To the hands of God I give the battle for life, miracle of healing and trust in His protection. The only tragedy that evening was the untimely death of our donor whose family gave the beautiful gift of life.

As the details of the accident in Florida unraveled I learned that I did not know the individuals involved. Not personally. But the event awakened the reality of how close we dance every day on the brink of life and death. Upset, I asked my husband to finish the bedtime routine and retreated to have a short conversation with my colleague. He summed it up perfectly when he said, “This job is humbling…. in so many ways.”


  1. Wow, that's an incredible story. I am always in awe of those who risk their lives to perform a noble job. Right now, my greatest fear is not being there to see my daughters grow up.

  2. i don't have too much to add here, but thanks for sharing your story and your perspective.

    i was a 4th year medical student, doing a sub-I in the cardiac ICU at the University of Michigan when that plane went down and we lost many vital, vibrant members of our medical team. it was a huge, HUGE blow, and, as you said, a humbling reminder of the give-and-take of life and of our jobs as physicians.

  3. Wow. What a tragic story. We don't usually think about the possibility of a life flight crashing - it seems so paradoxical.

    As physicians, most of us risk our lives every day in some way - we just don't think about it. This story is one example. We are all exposed to body fluids, radiation, dangerous equipment, combustible gases, and irrational patients. Many of us are exposed to infectious diseases on a daily basis. Hepatitis, HIV, meningitis... there are many scary, incurable things we face to which we ourselves are susceptible. When I do a brain biopsy, my OR team and I risk contracting Creutzfeld-Jakob (prion) disease, multi-drug-resistant TB, and many other things. Physicians have been killed by disgruntled patients or family members.

    We choose to work in an inherently dangerous field. We who survive unscathed are truly blessed.

    Very moving post - thanks!

  4. I have goosebumps. Such an incredible story.

  5. I love the imagery of so many people coming together to save one life, although the tragic outcome of that particular effort is profoundly upsetting. I agree with your husband - this job is humbling.

  6. You are a great writer. I saw that news post when it happened and I was so saddened by it. I can just imagine how you would have been affected by it.

  7. Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.


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