Sunday, May 15, 2022

‘I just drive’: Here's what it’s like to be a Life Flight pilot in Houston

Memorial Hermann Life Flight pilot Robert Purdy at the Baytown Airport on April 26, 2022. Purdy is a former Army pilot who served 26 years with three tours in Afghanistan an two tours in Iraq. He’s been with Memorial Hermann since 2016.

Robert Purdy has developed a sixth sense about the weather.

It’s critical for his job as a pilot for Memorial Hermann Life Flight, the nonprofit air ambulance service that responds to the most severe traumatic injuries within 150 mile of the Texas Medical Center.

While Life Flight crews in the six EC-145 twin-engine helicopters can reach as far as Austin to the west and Lake Charles, Louisiana, to the east, thunderstorms and fog are the most consistent deterrent for the emergency flights.

“You almost have to have a spidey sense,” he says. “If I’m doing a call down on the Bolivar Peninsula, and you see fog is forecast, it’s all part of talking to your crews.”

Purdy is one of about 20 Life Flight pilots who use their years of experience, often through military service, to streamline flights while specially trained paramedics and nurses provide life-saving care in the cramped cabin behind them. He has flown dozens of missions since he joined the organization in 2016, including t wounded police officer John Barnes from Santa Fe High School following the tragic 2018 shooting.

Ahead of National Trauma Survivors Day and the May 18 anniversary of the shooting, Purdy reflected on his Army career that brought him to Life Flight and his perspective of the chaos that unfolded that day.

Born in Malvern, Arkansas, Purdy’s obsession with aircraft started with regular visits to naval air stations along the Gulf Coast with his father and a fascination with the 1970s TV military drama Black Sheep Squadron. He went to flight school in 1991 and for two years flew Cobra attack helicopters for the Army in Korea.

He switched to Apache helicopters, which he flew during his first combat missions in the Iraq invasion in 2003. His 25-year Army career included two deployments to Iraq and three to Afghanistan, conducting mostly reconnaissance and attack missions. He logged more than 5,000 hours of flight time, and was qualified to operate five different helicopters.

He also served as a pilot instructor at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where he retired as attack branch chief in 2016. Then, an old friend who worked for Life Flight sparked his interest in the air ambulance service.

Purdy saw a way to use his military experience for a good purpose. His calm, reserved demeanor made him a perfect fit, said Life Flight paramedic Philip Pegg, who sat in on his interview.

“There’s some difficult situations we get into ... but he has an absolutely relaxed, calm tone of voice. Complete confidence,” Pegg said. “The people in the back trust him with everything on the line.”

Purdy’s day-to-day tasks are similar to a firefighter. His 12-hour shifts at the Life Flight base in Baytown — one of five in the Houston region — are filled with routine equipment checks, administrative work, weather analysis, meetings with the flight crew and down time. But he stays mentally alert for a call.

Some days pass with no need for their assistance. Unusually chaotic shifts might send them up to five calls, which could require Purdy to land in a tight space on a backed-up highway tor transfer a patient in critical condition from a Louisiana hospital.

The medical crew typically receives minimal details about the scene before arrival. That was the case on May 18, 2018, when a voice over the radio told them to respond to a shooting at Sante Fe High School. They were tasked with picking up a man who had been shot and flying him to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Pegg, who was working that day, said he knew “it was going to be real.”

It was unusual to have more than one aircraft respond to a scene, but Purdy remembers three medical flight crews arriving at the school. After he landed in the parking lot, the minutes ticked slowly while paramedics stabilized John Barnes, who took a shotgun blast to the elbow. He was losing blood quickly. At one point, paramedics believe he briefly “passed away” before being loaded onto the aircraft.

With the dying man behind him, Purdy concentrated on his task: Get him to Galveston.

“I just drive,” he said. “And that’s the way it has to be.”

Barnes was unconscious during the flight but later met and thanked Purdy and the crew that helped save him.

The meeting was part of his healing process, he said, adding that he now approaches life with a new perspective and a strong desire to travel. He was among 13 people who were wounded. Another 10 people died.

“The fact that there even is a future (for me) is exciting,” Barnes said.

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