“I just had that gut feeling that something was very wrong.”
Jessica Wrest remembers every detail of that day in late September 2022, when she received terrible news: Her school-age son, Chance, had a serious head infection and was suffering from a blood clot in his neck— two conditions that would require immediate medical intervention.
It all happened when her son began experiencing a pain and discomfort that weren’t going away after he had been treated at a local healthcare facility.
“I brought Chance to our local hospital’s emergency room here in Ishpeming, Michigan after two visits at a walk-in clinic resulted in no improvement to his symptoms,” recalls Wrest. “I told the ER doctor I wasn’t leaving until Chance got a CAT scan on his head and some antibiotics.”
The doctor complied. Chance underwent a CAT scan and, immediately after getting the results, the doctor put him on a heavy dose of antibiotics and morphine. Just hearing the drug’s name, alone —morphine— set off an alarm in Wrest. But that wasn’t the worst part. Soon, Wrest would learn that her son’s condition was far worse than what she first imagined and that his “chance” for survival would require quick action.
“What I thought would be a somewhat easy visit turned very serious in a matter of minutes,” Wrest said. “When the doctor came in and told us that Chance was suffering from a severe case of mastoiditis, an infection of the large bone behind the ear, and had a 2 cm blood clot in his jugular vein, more than likely stemming from the infection, it was so overwhelming that I couldn’t comprehend everything at first. The doctor then told us that we would have to ride in an ambulance that will take us to Sawyer International Airport, and from there we would need to fly to Helen Devos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.”
The urgency in the doctor’s voice added a whole new layer of fear to what Wrest was already experiencing upon hearing her son’s diagnosis.
“I could feel my heart start to skip beats as I was so upset and scared for my son,” she said. “But once we got to the airport and were introduced to the clinicians who would be with us for our flight to the children’s hospital, I felt better. The minute I met Ashley and Dave, I knew my son and I were going to be ok; we were in good hands.”
The clinicians Wrest is referring to are Flight Nurse Ashley Keller and Flight Paramedic and Base Manager David Harju, both of whom are based out of Guardian Flight 042 in Grand Rapids.
“They (Dave and Ashley) kept reassuring us during the flight, constantly asking if we needed anything,” said Wrest. “Everything felt calm for a change, in fact, I remember, at one time, looking over at Chance about midway to Grand Rapids and seeing that he was falling asleep. I also noticed Dave was right by his side, like he said he would be. He was constantly watching Chance. Ashley was also keeping a close eye on Chance, even as she was doing paperwork. These guys were angels to me.”
Keller says while she and Harju are “humbled” by Wrest’s gratitude, the crew was just doing their job and that being attentive to every detail of the patient and family member onboard is an integral part of the entire flight crew’s responsibilities.
“There is a huge team of people behind us that makes our process look seamless,” said Keller. “Our pilot, Ben Olsem, was fantastic as he provided a flight plan that would keep the pressurization of the cabin low to improve the patient’s comfort while keeping us safe.”
Harju also says alleviating a patient’s stress is not only one of the crew’s top priorities, but also a skill that can’t just be learned through an instructional course. He says all the education in the world can’t teach you how to demonstrate compassion— the most important skill of all in patient care — if you don’t already have it.
“I try and remain empathetic to the patient and family of their plight and needs,” said Harju. “I make it a point to introduce both myself and partner, address them by their preferred name and title, listen to them and acknowledge their concerns and just talk to them in a way that’s beyond a clinical level. It’s important to be confident, but not cocky. No one cares if you graduated top of your class, crushed your advanced certification exam or recently secured the most difficult airway. In a medical crisis, what a patient and family member want to know is that we recognize their emergency and that they will be cared for during their transport.”
And being “cared for” was exactly Wrest’s experience in her and Chance’s transport.
“When we landed, Ashley and Dave joined us in the ambulance as we headed to the hospital,” said Wrest. “Once there, my focus was obviously on Chance, but I remember looking up to see Ashley and Dave, but in a matter of minutes, they were gone. I never got the chance to tell them and Ben, in person, how much their service affected me and Chance. If it weren’t for all of them, their knowledge and talents, I can’t see how Chance’s situation could have turned out as it did. Their service gave my son a “fighting chance” to survive his condition, because if we had to drive to the hospital, who knows if Chance could have received the help he needed in time. The entire air crew, they are the ones who made that difference.”