REACH Stories

Michelle Miller

Happy to be home in Montana

Michelle Miller

“Without air transport, I don’t know what would have happened to me that day,” says Michelle Miller of Butte, Montana. “I had no other options. The largest medical facility is 3 ½ hours away in Billings and they weren’t equipped to handle my case. Montana is very rural and our access to specialty care is limited.”

A year and a half ago, the Millers were gearing up for a festive holiday season with their family and friends when one evening Michelle came down with what they thought was just a bad migraine.

“We had just been out to dinner with friends the night before to celebrate. Never did we think just 12 hours later we’d be thrust into a life or death type situation,” recalls Michelle’s husband Jeff.

Michelle hadn’t been feeling well all day and as the evening progressed, her vision began to double. When her headache continued to get worse, Michelle decided it was probably time they head to the emergency room.

“They thought it was just a migraine, so they sent me home,” says Michelle.

The caring flight crew made all the difference for Michelle. The caring flight crew made all the difference for Michelle.

By 3 a.m. though, the pain grew to be too much for Michelle and the pair headed back to the hospital. When they arrived, the pressure was so severe that she had temporarily lost vision in one eye and was suffering from numbness in the right side of her face.

After undergoing both a CT scan and an MRI, doctors at the local hospital knew they needed expert advice. They consulted with a neurosurgeon in Billings and determined that there was no facility in Montana that could provide Michelle with the care she needed.

“They found an abnormal lesion on the right side of my brain,” says Michelle. “They couldn’t determine if it was a tumor or if it was an aneurysm. All they knew was that they couldn’t handle my case in Montana and that we needed to get to Denver or Seattle.”

The decision was made to airlift Michelle to the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver. REACH 57 in Helena, MT received the call for Michelle’s transport. Pilot David Coon, Flight Nurse Kitty McGowan, and Flight Paramedic Donald Brooks were the responding crew that day.

Above the frozen landscape of Montana. Above the frozen landscape of Montana.

“When we arrived at the hospital, Michelle was resting in a dark room because the lights we really bothering her,” says Flight Nurse Kitty McGowan.” We could tell right away that she and her family were incredibly anxious and we knew right then that we really needed to focus on comforting her and providing her family with a lot of TLC.”

Leaving their three sons behind in Montana, Michelle and Jeff tried to prepare themselves for the flight to Denver. However, both were feeling quite nervous, and it showed.

“Neither of us like flying in small planes and with inclement weather that night, we were both incredibly nervous about the flight,” says Jeff. “The pilot and the crew made sure to walk us through the entire flight plan and they reassured both of us that if the weather was worse in Denver, there were a number of airports along the flight path where we could touch down and rendezvous with a ground ambulance.”

With over 20 years of experience as a nurse, seven of which have been spent in air transport, Kitty McGowan is confident in her ability to help a patient relax and feel comfortable.

“When we have a patient that is afraid of flying, the first thing the clinical crew will do is talk about how experienced and professional our pilots are,” says Kitty. “And then we like to walk them through the entire process of their transport, from loading them up to touching down at the final destination. We give them as much information as possible and we never negate their concerns. In fact, we do everything we can to try and alleviate that fear.”

The REACH aircraft in flight. The REACH aircraft in flight.

After talking the pair through each step of the transport, they loaded the plane up and took off for Denver. Once they were in the sky, the clinical crew turned their focus to helping Michelle effectively manage her pain.

“The care during my flight really made a huge difference,” says Michelle. “Because of how severe my symptoms were, there is no way that I could have made that trip by ground. It is a 12-hour drive to Denver and I could not have gone without the care and the medicine that was provided in flight.”

Access to locally placed helicopters and airplanes is hugely important in rural states like Montana where the access to specialty care is limited depending on your location.

The Millers definitely appreciated how quickly REACH responded and how fast they were able to transport Michelle safely to the higher level of care she needed. During the flight, the change in her demeanor was immediately noticeable to Jeff.

“The crew was extremely professional and very focused and aware of Michelle’s needs. They were just so in-tune with her pain level,” says Jeff. “I knew we were in good hands the whole time.”

It wasn’t long before the plane touched down in Denver and Michelle was headed for the University of Colorado Hospital. There, doctors found that Michelle was suffering from a brain tumor that was intruding on two major cranial nerves. Just a few weeks after her transport, she underwent brain surgery to remove the mass.

“I was very fortunate,” says Michelle. “The tumor ended up being in a rather complicated place, but I had a very good team of surgeons that were able to remove most of it.”

Following her surgery, Michelle underwent radiation treatments to eradicate the rest of the tumor.

Michelle is now back home in Montana and doing well. She and Jeff make quarterly treks to the mile high city for brain scans. We are happy to report Michelle has done very well in her recovery.

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