The midnight air hangs still and black in Kelly Houser's bedroom. Saturday slips unassumingly into Sunday as she sleeps. The quietude of the moment is profound until it is broken by a call; a cry of distress.
Kelly's instincts cause her to rise, and she calmly but swiftly makes her way to the control room. There she meets with her pilot. He runs through his preflight checklist, gauges weather conditions, and determines that everything is a go. Within no time, she is off the ground and on her way to save the life of one in desperate need.
Kelly is a flight nurse with Paducah's Phi's air medical base, and she admits that it is more than a job. It is something that gets deep into your blood.
"I wanted to do this since high school," the Aurora native explains. "I went through a health careers program in high school, and our teacher was amazing. We were exposed to so much. We visited everything from eye doctors to vets."
But it was one particular visit that left a lasting impression on Kelly. "A medical flight service came in. Once I discovered that, I knew what I wanted to do. I had already been interested in the EMS field, and I discovered the career potentials of being a nurse. When I found out I could be a nurse and fly, I was in."
After high school, Kelly attended WKCTC and then went on to Murray State. While there, she got her EMT license and worked in an emergency room. After graduation, she joined Phi in Paducah where she works 24 hours on, 72 off.
Even though Kelly never knows what a day might bring, there is definitely a sense of routine and order to every shift. "We come in, meet with the pilot, and discuss any aircraft maintenance and topics that we need to go over. We have a weather briefing and then check our meds and equipment. The important thing is that we are talking to one another and communicating. Underneath it all, we're checking to make sure everyone is ok and rested and ready to go."
The camaraderie and teamwork at Phi is a cornerstone of all they do, not only for those they help but for their own safety as well. "It is a team effort," adds Kelly. "We say it's three to go, one to say no. If one crew member does not feel comfortable about something, we abort." It's what the company calls Destination Zero. Phi's pursuit of safety has garnered the company national recognition as a leader and model. "We're all looking, watching out for one another, and speaking up when we need to."
Their senses are honed and sharp; and they need to be. "We are called in to patients that are usually the worst of the worst. There is a good chance they would die without our intervention. We can perform procedures the ground crews cannot because we have a wider scope of practice. When it gets bad, we're the go-to guys."
When a call comes in, the Phi crew typically does not know the details of the situation. "We have to determine whether to fly or not. We make all of our safety decisions first. If we knew all the details, we may be tempted to take a call when it wasn't safe to do so."
Once a flight commitment is made, the crew takes the helicopter to the scene and flies around a couple of times, checking their surroundings and ground conditions. If it is a night flight, each crew member is outfitted with night vision goggles. After landing, they spring into action.
"We're there as the best of the best; the cream of the crop. We have protocols we stick to, and we stay calm. That's what everyone at the scene needs. We bring organization and calmness to a chaotic situation." In fact, each member of the Phi team endures rigorous testing before they are offered a job. "We are put through different scenarios to find the breaking point. It's just a part of the screening process."
On scene, the crew works quickly and methodically with the best technology available. "We have what amounts to a mini emergency room in a 75 pound pack-and-carry."
Intervention is swift, and every patient is different. "We see a wide variety. It could be a heart attack, stroke, accident trauma, high risk O.B., or a baby." As the patient is tended to in the helicopter, the pilot makes his way to one of several locations. "It takes us 50 minutes to get to Louisville as opposed to three or four hours driving. In these cases, that's huge."
Once the patient and crew arrive safely, the process starts all over again. The helicopter is refueled, weather conditions are reassessed, and the crew meets before making the return flight. "It's just what we do. We've all been doing this, we've all been trained for it, and this is our background." But Kelly admits there is a time and place for a release.
"You sometimes see something like a child who looks like your own. We don't think about it or focus on it in a call, but sometimes it all kind of hits on the way back. Sometimes I've let it out through tears."
Back at the base, which is similar to a firehouse, the crew relaxes. "We are encouraged to rest and be ready for the next call." Kelly also works on continuing education and training, staying on top of what is going on in her field.
"And we just become family around here," she adds. "We learn one another and each person's likes and dislikes. We also learn who can cook and who can't!"
Kelly, who is pursuing her master's as a nurse practitioner, doesn't see her flying days coming to an end anytime soon. "Sometimes you see the people or the kids you've helped, and they come up to you and thank-you. That's why this is more than a job. It's not just what we do, it's who we are."