The Flight of the UCAN Nurses

Photo by Gerald Waddell

Photo by Gerald Waddell

At ScienceLife HQ, we often hear the loud roar of the hospital helicopter as it takes off on urgent duty. In this article that originally appeared in the Medical Center publications Newsfront and Forefront, Cheryl L. Reed writes about what motivates and amazes the nurses who fly those missions. You can watch a video version of the story here.

From a distance it sounds like thunder and then like a rogue train plowing through the neighborhood. But closer in, the rumbling in the sky is unmistakable, a helicopter, its blades splicing the air. Within sight, the maroon helicopter becomes a point of pride and curiosity: What crisis are University of Chicago Medical Center nurses and emergency residents responding to? Is it a car crash or a woman in premature labor? Are they transporting organs for transplant surgery or ferrying a complex patient whose symptoms can’t be unraveled by doctors elsewhere?

When the helicopter lands and the noise dies down, the crew from University of Chicago Aeromedical Network (UCAN) emerge in their flight suits looking much like characters from the movie Top Gun.

“I usually get stopped at least once a week in a hospital by someone who asks me how I got my job,” said Kelley Holdren, BSN, CFRN, who has been a UCAN flight nurse for seven years.

The Medical Center’s UCAN program was the first and remains the only hospital-based flight response in the Chicago area. Though air ambulances are common in Chicago, most are operated by private companies. UCAN started at the Medical Center in 1983. At the time, it was the 53rd flight program in the country and the only dedicated flight program in the Chicago area. Now, there are over 700 medical helicopters across the country.

UCAN runs 24 hours, seven days a week and has nine nurses, several of whom are part-time, and a crew of emergency medicine residents. At least one flight nurse and one resident are on every transport. Second- and third-year residents spend two years doing shifts in the flight program. The pilots are usually retired military. Ira Blumen, MD, is UCAN’s program and medical director and Karen Arndt, RN, BSN, CFRN, CMTE, is its chief flight nurse and administrative director.

“UCAN is a great program and a leader in the industry nationwide,” said Pat Petersen, executive director of the Air Medical Physicians Association (AMPA). “Ira Blumen was an original board member of AMPA and was the editor of a textbook about medical transport. He and Karen Arndt have done amazing things for the industry; their contributions to the safety reviews have been invaluable.”


Kelley Holdren on board the helicopter. (Photo by Cheryl L. Reed)

For Holdren, her job as a flight nurse is the culmination of a dream that began in sixth grade while sitting in her orthodontist’s office. Among the magazines scattered in the waiting room was one that featured a story about the UCAN program. Instantly, it hit her: “That’s what I want to do.”

On her honeymoon in Maui, she convinced her husband, who gets motion sickness, to take a helicopter ride to see if she could really handle being in the air. “It had become such a big part of my drive to become a flight nurse and, yet, I’d never even ridden in a helicopter,” she said.

When Holdren graduated from nursing school in 1997, she held out for a position at the Medical Center because her ultimate goal was to become a flight nurse. She started out in the Medical Intensive Care Unit and then moved to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). “It was all just a holding pattern until I could start flying,” she said.

Along the way, Holdren was coached by Arndt who encouraged the young nurse to expand her experience in the PICU and in cardiac care. “It’s pretty rare that someone leaves,” Arndt said, “but when they do there are always lots of people trying to get in.”

When Mary Rey, MS, RN, CFRN, first started with UCAN in 1984, she’d never flown in a helicopter. Her nursing experience has involved a variety of assignments, including pediatrics, the pulmonary clinic, the recovery room and kidney and pancreas transplants.

“We see a lot of sick people,” explained Rey, who, in two different tours, has spent 14 years as a UCAN nurse. “There’s almost no patient who is too unstable for us to take. We handle mostly critical cases that can’t be transported by ground because of the severity of their case. Transporting by helicopter keeps the out-of-hospital time shorter for those patients.”

UCAN requires multiple certifications of its nurses, many of which aren’t required elsewhere in the hospital. The list of certifications include: advanced cardiac life support, pre-hospital trauma life support, pediatric advanced life support, trauma nurse core curriculum, neonatal resuscitation program as well as certified flight registered nurse. Before the helicopter ever leaves the helipad atop the Bernard Mitchell hospital, the nurse on duty will triage the patient by phone. Based on a series of criteria that UCAN has adapted from various resources, the flight team will determine whether it’s necessary to transport the patient by air or by ground. Just as often, the UCAN nurse and resident will go by ground transport as by air.

“Doing medicine in an aircraft adds a whole new component,” Rey said. “Flying is so beautiful. We’ll lift off and it will be two o’clock in the morning with the moon shining in the windows and you have such a unique view of the city. Or we’ll go to Indiana to pick up a patient and I’ll see the farm field and colors changing in the fall. I used to wonder if I should take one of those trips up the Sears Tower to see the city. But I fly at that level all the time.”

For Holdren, there’s no other nursing job she’d rather have, though she insists it’s not as glamorous as people might think: “You freeze your butt in the winter and sweat in the summer. You can go 16 hours without sleeping or eating. There’s always heavy lifting. We can take a person weighing up to 350 pounds, and I have to help put them on the stretcher and into the helicopter. Some of the equipment weighs 200 pounds. Still, I can’t get over it. I feel like I go to Disneyland everyday. They pay me to fly in a helicopter.”

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
%d bloggers like this: