The echoing thunder of helicopter blades and a bright flash of orange and yellow in the sky are familiar to area residents. As part of the Centura Health system, Mercy Regional Medical Center is privileged to have a Flight For Life® Colorado crew, helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft based in Durango. This highly-trained team provides irreplaceable, life-saving medical air transport to our rural Four Corners region. Always willing to jump in and support where needed, the Flight For Life crew are valued members of our Mercy Regional Medical Center family.
Though used to working in high-pressure situations, the Flight For Life team has faced unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before in my career and I’ve been a nurse for almost 20 years,” Carrie Wassel, Flight Nurse, stated. “COVID has changed everything about the way I do my job, from how I interact with my coworkers to how I take care of my patients. I haven’t seen a patient face-to-face without a mask on for over a year and that’s been really strange.”
Flight For Life not only provides medical transport they also support local counties with search and rescue efforts. Due to the pandemic outdoor recreation in Colorado reached all-time highs in 2020. The increased popularity of backcountry exploration resulted in increased rescue operations for Carrie and her team.
“Everyone was trying to get outside,” Carrie explained. “There was nowhere else to go because everything was closed. As the spring and summer went on backcountry search and rescue calls went up. There were a lot of people coming to the mountains that weren’t necessarily prepared to recreate in the backcountry or take care of themselves if they got into trouble.”
In addition to increased calls, crew members had to don full personal protective equipment (PPE) which included coveralls, N95 masks and face guards. The first few times Carrie flew in full PPE was cumbersome.
“I remember my partner and I could barely hear each other, we had to shout through our masks and protective layers,” Carrie said. “It definitely upped the stress level.”
“We look like we are from another planet,” Carrie said when describing the PPE. “I’m sure we look scary, that’s why we started attaching our photos and names to our clothing.”
As the pandemic continued so did innovation in COVID-19 response. Flight For Life crew members wear special flight suits equipped with upwards of 10 pockets in which the crew keep all the gear needed for their job. The need to wear the protective coveralls restricted the use of the pockets. One of the Flight For Life crew members suggested fanny packs as an alternative. The crew quickly made this suggestion a reality, purchasing fanny packs made of vinyl that can easily be wiped down. In addition, the crew now wear masks that are easier to hear and speak through and they have gotten used to wearing the required PPE.
Though the pandemic has been challenging, Carrie is optimistic about the future.
“We will find a new normal,” Carrie said. “We’ll continue to get used to wearing protective equipment and getting vaccinated. I hope we come away stronger as a country and a health care system. I try to look for the silver lining in any bad experience, and in this situation that silver lining is: I hope we learn something. I hope people can learn to be kinder to each other and take care of one another.”