SAN ANTONIO – Looking inside the helicopter perched on top of University Health’s helipad, you wouldn’t think it’s one of the larger helicopters in San Antonio AirLIFE’s fleet.
To say it’s close quarters is an understatement.
“It was not made for me. No, but you get used to it,” Michael Wynn said.
Wynn has been a paramedic for 13 years. The last eight have been spent in the back of a helicopter.
He knows every piece of equipment and the helicopter, an Airbus UC 145, like the back of his hand.
Although Wynn isn’t trained in aviation, he can tell you what makes the chopper special.
“When it’s foggy or overcast, there are only two aircraft south of Austin to service the entire, basically, south end of the state,” Wynn said.
The only thing that outshines the helicopter is the crew and equipment that flies in it.
“We can do just about anything in the back of this helicopter that you could do in an ER and ICU,” Wynn said.
His partner in the back of the unit is David Renteria.
“I’ve been a huge Superman fan my entire life and flying and saving people. I was like, Oh, how can I do that?” Renteria said.
For a decade, he’s been a nurse working at University Hospital, but he dreamed of following in Superman’s path.
Renteria signed up for more training, took more classes, put his nose to the grindstone, and became a flight nurse seven years ago. He remembers his first flight the day after his orientation. It was a different world than working inside of an emergency room.
“We did what needed to be done, got an IV right away, got him on the monitor, got him on a stretcher, got him here, another four-minute flight back and it was just amazing feeling,” Renteria said.
Manning the controls is pilot Adrian Mansfield. He’s been a medical helicopter pilot for nine years.
“We are trained to not think about that too much because, depending on what’s going on outside the helicopter, you have to make the same decision. It shouldn’t make any difference who or what is in the back,” Mansfield said.
It’s hard to say what an average or typical day is in their work-life as things can change from one hour to the next.
“We’re always ready for any call when it does come about, and we’re always motivated whenever they need us,” Renteria said.
Whenever and wherever.
Between their four bases -- University Hospital in San Antonio, Kerrville, Pleasanton, and Uvalde -- their pilots, nurses, and medics cover 22 counties stretching as far as the border.
“Access to health care, especially for rural communities, has been really necessary during this whole pandemic,” Wynn said.
We’re used to seeing AirLIFE at traumatic scenes, but 80% of its flights are transferring a patient who needs more critical care.
“There have been a lot more people that needed to be transferred to larger facilities and into cities. So it’s been a busy couple of years,” Wynn said.
With how compact the inside of the helicopters is, COVID safety is an added challenge to an already challenging job.
Crews with AirLIFE are cautious about PPE protocols and carefully disinfect the helicopter between calls.