As more Americans start contemplating and, in some cases, altering their retirement plans in the aftermath of the recent pandemic, Phil Kolkow is thinking about how he can maintain a “high bar” in his professional life.
Kolkow’s aspiration wouldn’t be that unique except for one, interesting factor: he’s 71-years old, GMR’s oldest active air medical crew member on record. What’s more, the flight nurse with Air Link, a Med-Trans Corporation company—a member of the Global Medical Response (GMR) family— has no plans of slowing down or quitting any time soon.
“I have always had a passion for my career choice, and I don’t consider my age as an obstacle or detriment,” said the former rugby player, who competed in the brutal sport until the age of 45, only stopping to “allow the younger players to experience” the fun he’s had for many years. “I appreciate the acknowledgement of longevity in what I feel is the pinnacle of my career, and I’m stimulated by the team of experts who feel the same way.”
Kolkow’s career in the emergency medical field started after he finished nursing school and got a job at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Oregon, his current home. He worked in the hospital’s emergency department (ED) for many years as a staff nurse and charge nurse. Then, in 1985, the hospital started its first air transport program in Central Oregon when it realized it was losing patients due to long transport times. The program would eventually open a new opportunity for Kolkow.
“Because we were a hospital-based program, I was asked to assist as part of the flight crew, said Kolkow. “One day, the chief flight nurse was passing through the ED while I was looking at a chest film on a view box that showed a small pneumothorax (collapsed lung). I asked her to take a look at the subtle defect so that her crew would be aware of the patient’s condition before they took the individual to a high altitude. That’s when she looked at me and said, ‘You need to come work with us.’”
Kolkow would go on to serve with the hospital’s flight program for three years before heading back to the emergency department. Then, fast-forward eight years, when Med-Trans took over the hospital’s air program, he went back to the air.
“When I asked the hospital’s then chief flight nurse about his opinion of Med-Trans taking control of the air medical program, I remember him saying, ‘these guys are pros,’ so I knew it was going to be a good move,” recalled Kolkow.
And it’s a move that he’s never regretted, but rather, thankful for, describing his job as one that would be hard to abandon, no matter how stressful it can be.
“Replacing the positives of my career would be difficult,” Kolkow said. “The experience is always on my gratitude list, and probably one of the top reasons I’m still doing it. I love the sharing of information and knowledge that’s a critical part of this job. In fact, when I asked a colleague to help me to explain my zeal for this job, she simply said, ‘Phil, you are a reservoir of experience and wisdom.’ That response pretty much sums it up: I feel honored to pass my experience to others. Also, the only difference between myself and the high-level performers who I find myself surrounded with is just a few years. So, I’m learning from them as well. Much of what we do is based on pattern recognition. I think many people in this field get good at their skills and, by doing so, they help others improve.”
Kolkow’s love for his work has also gotten the attention of members of his own community. In 2013, he was profiled in an article for The Bend Bulletin, a daily, local publication for residents in Bend. The “day in the life” article focused on all the intricate details that air medical crews have to follow in order to properly care for and transport patients, especially those in critical condition.
“Make no mistake about it, this job is tough. All the more reason why you need to have a life outside of work,” adds Kolkow, which he says is partly why he’s still able to do his job.
“I make sure I have the opportunity to recharge. If you don’t do that, things can get ugly. I like taking walks in nature, spending time with my awesome wife, who understands my work because she’s a nurse, herself,” he said. “So, when you look at it, the secret to my success for staying in this line of work for so long is not really that hard to understand: You have to love what you do, take time for yourself and rest, and of course, never stop learning.”
Words of wisdom, indeed, and spoken from someone who’s encouraged so many others to experience all that’s good in life and in work.