It was a temperate December day in Eureka, California. Alissa Morey, an elementary school librarian, had just returned home from the supermarket with her two young children. She carried the box of groceries into the house while 9-year old Della chaperoned 18-month old Owen.
“I set the groceries on the counter,” Alissa says. “I thought the kids would come in right behind me, but they didn’t. Then I heard Owen crying.” At that moment, Della walked through the door carrying her little brother. “He’s bleeding,” she announced.
Owen’s right hand was bleeding, quite profusely. Alissa called to her sleeping husband, Lehrin, a clinical lab scientist who works the night shift. When Lehrin saw his son’s hand he said, “It’s really bad. We need to go.”
As it turns out, Owen had taken his sister on a brief detour after they got out of the car, attracted by a fixed-gear bicycle. He had simply spun one of its wheels…and then touched the chain. Of the three fingers that got caught in the chain, one was more severely injured than the others. “It looked like a tendon was hanging out,” Alissa recalls.
Fortunately, the Moreys have a hospital just a mile from their home. Owen quickly received both antibiotics and pain medication at the ER. Unfortunately, when the ER doctor saw the X-rays he said, “I’m not going to touch it. I can’t do anything. I’ve called for a pilot to fly you guys out.”
Alissa assumed Owen would be flown to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. The ER physician said, “No, UCSF only does about a dozen of these a year, but there’s a clinic in San Francisco that specializes in finger reattachments.” The doctor emphasized that it was the leading place in the world for such surgeries. The word “reattachments” got to Alissa; she hadn’t thought her son’s injury was that severe.
Cal-Ore Flight Paramedic Dan Johnson and Flight Nurse CJ Janisse arrived promptly. In a beautiful instance of “it’s a small world”, Lehrin knew CJ; they had worked together at St. Joseph’s Hospital. “My husband said he thought highly of her,” Alissa reports. “That was so reassuring. And the ER nurses were telling us how lucky we were to get this flight crew.”
Cal-Ore pilot Dave Ravetti was ready at the McKinleyville airport. “We took an ambulance to the airport,” Alissa says. “We had to put Owen back in his car seat and strap it to the gurney, and I sat in front with the driver. That was rough, being separated from Owen, but the ambulance driver was awesome. He talked to me, and he kept reassuring me in a light-hearted way.”
When they got to the airport, Alissa was overjoyed to learn that she could fly to San Francisco with Owen. She sat in the cockpit with Dave. “The crew needed to draw a curtain,” she says, “but they were really good about explaining everything to me and answering my questions. I had a lot of questions. Owen was screaming on and off, waking up and then falling back asleep. I really remember the crew’s demeanor and tone of voice. CJ just kept speaking softly and calmly. It was reassuring not only to Owen, but to me. I was able to stay calm.”
A ground ambulance was at the other end, ready to take Owen and party to The Buncke Clinic. Buncke specializes in plastic and reconstructive surgery, hand surgery and microsurgery..
“When we arrived, I was so relieved,” Alissa says, “but by the time we got there, the surgeon had left.” They were told he would return in the morning.
Alissa was grateful that CJ and Dan had opted to remain with her and Owen until they had a room. “They would check in with me. ‘How are you? Do you need anything?’. Then they said, ‘Now that you’re settled, we’ll go. You’re in really good hands. You’re going to be just fine.’”
CJ, who has been with Cal-Ore since March of 2012, says it was really gratifying to be able to provide care for the child of a friend. Her nursing career started when she was a just a child herself. “I used to take care of all the other little kids on my block,” she shares, “put Band-Aids on them and stuff. I just wanted to take care of people.”
Back at The Buncke Clinic, Alissa waited for her husband and mother-in-law to arrive. “I was trying to keep a perspective,” she says. “I kept telling myself that it could have been much worse. And it really helped that everyone was reassuring me everything was going to be fine.”
Those were not false words. The next day, Owen’s hour-long surgery went beautifully. There was no nerve damage, and the Moreys were able to take their son home within 24 hours. Owen wore a custom-made cast for about two months to protect his hand while it healed. He recovered beautifully and is doing quite well today.
The Moreys have learned a lot over the course of this experience. Something they are now very familiar with is Cal-Ore’s membership program. In fact, Alissa says, “Now that it’s all over and Owen is fine, membership is my new mission in life. I tell everybody, and I give them the link to Cal-Ore’s website. I know that at least five of my friends have joined so far.”
Owen is again a happy, rambunctious two-year old. Alissa is also back to work, and life is moving forward. “We had such good care from Cal-Ore,” she says. “I appreciate so much that the crew made us comfortable—both physically and emotionally. CJ, Dan and Dave were the absolute definition of caring professionals.”
Gustavo and Maria Cuevas of Monroe, Oregon have three sons: Alan, Angel and Victor . They live on the 800-acre ranch where Gustavo works, and last July 29 was pretty much an average day…until it wasn’t.
“The kids were on summer vacation,” says Gustavo. “I was trying to keep them busy instead of letting them watch TV all day.”
Alan chimes in. “We were just having an average day. Since we live on a farm, we always ask my dad if he needs any help. He didn’t that day, so Angel and I drove around on an ATV near where he was working.”
“I had just looked up to check on them 10 or 15 seconds before,” Gustavo says, “and then I heard someone screaming.”
Alan provides details. “Angel was steering, and there was a big rock or something that made the handlebars turn to the right and caused the ATV to roll. The ATV and I were both rolling, and it hit me in the stomach while I was in midair. When I tried to get up afterwards, I couldn’t get past my knees. My abdomen was really hurting, kind of a burning, stinging pain.”
“I got there as fast as I could,” says Gustavo. “Alan was trying to stand up but he couldn’t. He said that his stomach was hurting.”
Gustavo called Maria, who came and held Alan while her husband was on the phone with 911. “I told them what happened and that I was afraid the paramedics wouldn’t find us since we were out in the middle of an 800-acre ranch. They said to send someone to the highway, but that I couldn’t go, because I needed to stay on the phone with them.” Maria went, even though she was extremely reluctant to leave her son’s side. “Alan was getting worse every minute,” Gustavo explains. “His face was white, his lips were dry, he was getting cold…his eyes even started to roll back once.”
“When the paramedics came,” Alan shares, “I blacked out for a while, but I could still hear and feel everything they were doing. They were checking my vitals, and they said my blood pressure was going down. I was so cold. They put the electric blanket on me and said they would call for a helicopter.”
Piloted by Bryan Bowen, the REACH helicopter arrived quickly, carrying Flight Nurse Joey Van Winckel and Flight Paramedic Eric Schmidt.
“Alan is such a wonderful little boy,” says Joey. “He was able to tell us what happened, which was really helpful.” She adds, “Gustavo and Maria raised some good kids. Alan kept asking about Angel, and Angel was worried about Alan.” (Angel did not sustain any serious injuries.)
“I was dizzy and woozy. I had tunnel vision,” says Alan. “During the flight, the crew was really great. They kept asking how I was doing. And I kept asking if they knew anything about my little brother.”
Alan was transported to the nearest hospital, Sacred Heart in River Bend. The REACH crew stayed with him. “We stuck around at the hospital because we knew something was wrong,” says Joey, “most likely his liver.”
They were right. Alan’s liver was split nearly in half.
Says Gustavo, “I’ll never forget that they decided to stay. I’m so grateful. When I got to Sacred Heart, the first thing Alan said was, ‘Tell my brother it wasn’t his fault. Everything is going to be okay.’ Later, we talked as a family and we decided that no one was going to be mad at anybody, that it was an accident.”
“When my dad told me that Angel was fine, I was really happy,” says Alan. “From the outside, he looked like he had more injuries than me, because he had lots of scrapes and bruises.”
Due to the seriousness of his liver injury, REACH transported Alan to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “He also injured one of his lungs,” Gustavo reports. “He lost a lot of weight. He couldn’t eat or drink for two weeks. The doctors wanted to avoid surgery, because the liver heals itself.”
“I just stayed at the hospital and recovered,” Alan says. “It felt really good when they said I didn’t need surgery.”
Joey remembers, “I think he was the most bummed out that he couldn’t participate in sports for a while, but he also looked at us and said, ‘Yeah, but I’m alive.’”
Alan agrees. “I do basketball every year. I was pretty sad when they said I wasn’t going to be able to do sports or anything for a while, but they cleared me just in time for basketball season! I’m doing good now. I’m fully recovered. No more problems.”
The Cuevas family had the opportunity to reunite with the REACH flight crew. “They came to a picnic that the Monroe and Alpine Fire Department do every year,” says Gustavo. “They came in the helicopter to meet us. We took pictures, and we were on the news.”
Alan adds, “I really liked that I was able to say thanks to the crew for the amazing job they did. They did an extraordinary job, not just of taking care of me, but also just of being there.”
Minerva and Domingo Medina live about 50 miles southwest of San Antonio, Texas. Minerva is a willing conversationalist, answering questions and sharing stories in tones ranging from enthusiastic to vulnerable to tickled pink. The vitality she exudes is contagious, which might not be what you’d expect from a 67-year old woman who has spent more time in hospitals over the past few years than she can recall. But to be fair, she was unconscious through much of it. “I’ve been through so many of those experiences!” Minerva says.
As most asthmatics would agree, Minerva says there’s nothing scarier than not being able to breathe. She describes what it’s like when she has a serious episode. “I’ll be breathing, and then it’s like my chest is against a wall. I can’t get any air, and I get really scared. Then I have an anxiety attack. And then I pass out.”
Minerva has taken four Methodist Air Care helicopter flights during the past four years, with multiple trips by ground ambulance or car sandwiched in between. “The hospital staff and the flight teams, they work really fast with me,” she says. “Since I’m out, I don’t even know how much they are doing to help me, but my husband watches and tells me afterwards.”
The Medinas have four children and many grandchildren…somewhere close to 20. “My baby daughter has a daughter who just turned one, and she’s either number 18 or number 19,” Minerva says, once again doing the math in her head. “And we have 10 great grandkids.”
In January, when Minerva was received at Frio Regional Hospital in especially poor condition, it was suggested that perhaps that family should be contacted. Minerva was already unconscious, and her color was changing from normal to blue. Doctors promptly contacted Methodist Air Care. “I didn’t know who was on the flight team, because I’d passed out,” Minerva says. To underline her point she adds, “If I had died, I wouldn’t have known. I only know I’m alive because I woke up. And I know the flight team called afterwards to see if I was okay.”
That flight team was Methodist Air Care Pilot Steven Powell, Flight Nurse Stefanie Cruz and Flight Paramedic Zach Harman. “They did a lot of things to bring me back,” Minerva says, “and I’m always thinking about them. I feel so grateful for all their work.”
Domingo shares, “It’s unbelievable the way they were working to help my wife. I have never seen people work the way they did, so fast and so perfect. I was amazed to see her turn from blue to her natural color.”
Domingo had some trepidation the first time a flight team came for his wife. “The first time we transported her, he was very apprehensive,” Stefanie remembers. “But I think he was just terrified of losing her. I think they’ve been together forever. When he saw that he could trust us, he relaxed, and things go very smoothly now.”
Flight Paramedic Zach Harman says, “When we got there, Minerva wasn’t moving much air. We gave her medication and put her on a BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure, a non-invasive form of ventilation), and that turned her around quite well.” He adds, “Asthma is just one of those conditions that has to be treated quite aggressively; you can’t wait. And as soon as you do the right thing, you see the positive changes almost instantly.”
Zach, who originally wanted to be a firefighter, is happy to have found his niche with Methodist Air Care. “I went to the fire academy,” he shares, “and they made me go to EMT school, which I really didn’t want to do. But I ended up falling in love with EMS and decided to gear my education toward being a flight paramedic. I knew it was the best of the best, and this is a great company to work for.
Although Minerva was unconscious for several days, she stuck with her good habit of bouncing back. “When my husband got there and saw that I was awake, he started crying.” And then she starts crying herself. “I’m going to get emotional here,” she says. “On January 4, Domingo and I will have been married for 52 years.”
Stefanie loves Minerva’s tenacious resilience. “If it weren’t for the fighter she is, these successful outcomes wouldn’t be possible. And I just want her to know that she’s a fighter, and that it makes our job easier.” Apparently Stefanie is but one of Minerva’s many fans. “The hospital staff loves her,” Stefanie shares. “They’re always telling me that she’s the sweetest thing ever, and that she makes them cakes!”
Minerva confirms the rumor. “In January, the first thing I did when I got home was make a coconut meringue pie. And you know what? I don’t even like sweets! ” A moment later, she confesses, “Except I do love an Almond Joy.”
Of her care providers, Minerva says, “They do so much, all of them. The flight teams, the people at the hospital—all of them.”
Stefanie is grateful to be one of that crew; she clearly takes great joy in her work. When asked to share the most challenging part of the job, she can only come up with one thing. “It’s just hard not being able to do it every day,” she states. “I don’t ever not want to go to work. And on my days off, I get jealous when I see a helicopter fly overhead. But there’s always the potential to save lives; I don’t have to be at work. My kids got to see me pull a guy from a burning car. They like it that they can tell people, ‘My mommy saves lives!’”
Domingo can attest to that. “I can’t thank the Air Care EMTs enough for helping my wife breathe again. If I may say so, they are angels in disguise.”