Take Your Pitt Experiences to New Heights With STATMedEvac

by Dan Bowman

Whether it’s getting a head start on your bedside manner as a friendly visitor or exploring a specialty like Gamma Knife Neurosurgery, volunteering and shadowing can mean much more than ticking a box on your pre-med checklist. In today’s overly competitive pool of qualified medical school applicants, it is becoming increasingly important to find experiences that can help to influence and establish your niche in a field as vast and multidisciplinary as medicine. It is a lot to shoulder, given the already busy schedule of classes, research, and extracurricular activities we prioritize each day, but shouldn’t the pre-med’s equivalent of the job search still be exciting and even fun?

What if I told you the most thrilling medical experience you’ll find has been hovering right over your head ever since PittStart? I’m serious, that is not a metaphor; you can actually spend a day riding shotgun as a crew member of the STATMedEvac helicopter flight team. The program is open to any pre-med, rehabilitation science, nursing, or EMS student at Pitt, so the only thing keeping you from getting involved is a fear of heights.

STATMedEvac is a specialized division among paramedics and pre-hospital caregivers, utilizing specialized pediatric physicians, respiratory therapists and second year medical residents to stabilize a patient before more thorough treatment can be administered at the nearest appropriate trauma center. UPMC Mercy and Presbyterian are both Level I Trauma Centers, while UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a Level I Pediatric Trauma Center. What does it mean to be a level I trauma center? The hospital generally needs to be affiliated with a university medical school that includes trauma research, surgical residency, and an annual volume of at least 650 major cases. In most instances, a team of one flight nurse and one medic is sufficient to establish an airway and infuse stabilizing drugs, but certain cases like high-risk pregnancy and pediatrics require specialists to fly along as well.

I recently took advantage of this program, spending the day with STATMedEvac 3, a unit based just north of Pittsburgh, in Cranberry Township. As you can imagine, when you are on the precipice of your first helicopter flight or seeing first-hand a MedEvac team in action, it becomes easy to wake up to a 5 a.m. alarm. Once I arrived on base, the team briefing began promptly at 6:30 a.m. The ex-Navy pilot went over weather and flight protocol in the orderly fashion you might expect of a military veteran; he didn’t need a cup of coffee to get going that morning, and when the alarm rang for my first dispatch, I found that the adrenaline coursing through my veins was more powerful than strongest cup of coffee anyway.

In less than three minutes we were airborne. I was speechless. The dispatcher for the STATMedEvac team relayed critical information as the Ohio River came into view. Our orders were to pick up an auto accident victim for transport to the nearest adult Level I Trauma Center, in this case, UPMC Presbyterian right here in Oakland. My prior stint as a volunteer in the UPMC Presbyterian E.R. was helpful in preparing for the circumstances of the accident. I had seen the type numerous times before, but the adrenaline of landing on the highway made this instance much more visceral. The mixture of excitement and heartfelt worry for the victim was a feeling many in the emergency medical field have to reason with, and by my understanding, is something best left alone until your job is not only complete, but done to the best of your ability.

What really amazed me was the level of professionalism amidst controlled chaos. As I had seen previously from expert E.R. doctors and Presby’s trauma personnel, the teamwork and baffling speed these caregivers work with is nothing short of astonishing. With the victim stabilized and ready for transport, we were back in the air in no more than 10 minutes, en route to the Presby rooftop helipad. The flight nurse and medic had drips and the airway under control while the pilot got the go for landing next in line on the helipad.

If you ever volunteer in Presby E.R., look for the black and gold flight suits of STATMedEvac. The flight nurse and medic both wheeled the patient off the rooftop, into an elevator and into the E.R. where the head physician took the lead. As the flight medic brought the trauma team up to speed, our pilot circled over Schenley Park allowing other MedEvac’s to make their drops at the frantically busy Presby helipad. With that, MedEvac 3’s job was complete, leaving the patient in the hands of UPMC’s trauma unit. Despite the fact I had done nothing but take up space, I couldn’t help but feel pride in what the crew had accomplished. The flight back to base was again utterly breathtaking, topping off a truly inspiring morning.

Particularly relevant for many of The Pitt Pulse readership is the experience STATMedEvac gives to second year medical residents. While in their emergency medicine rotation the burgeoning E.R. doctors are exposed to the fullest spectrum of trauma cases. The physician-in-training gains a great deal of insight by following treatment from the scene of an accident through to the bedside. This experience and understanding of the pre-hospital techniques and protocols can only help to smooth the translation of critical patient information between flight and trauma teams.

Although I wasn’t qualified to be anything more than extra weight during my time aboard MedEvac 3, the experience I gained was as influential and memorable as any I’ve had. Although the commitment of aspiring to a career in medicine takes a great deal of work and effort, it is not without its own reward. Thanks to the ever growing health science community established by UPMC and Pitt, opportunities like the one I’ve described really are accessible. So, take advantage of all the resources around you and let those remarkable professional experiences fuel your desire to become someone great.