“I just felt sincere appreciation that I was physically and mentally capable of accomplishing such a long-term goal,” says April “Renee” Peebles, a wife, mother and Air Evac Lifeteam (AEL) 102 flight nurse, who recently “earned her wings” (aviator badge) with the air medical company in Dublin, Georgia. The achievement is particularly notable because it was just a little more than a year ago that Peebles, herself, was transported by AEL as a stroke patient.
Peebles’ journey as an “ER nurse-turned-patient-turned flight nurse” began one late June morning in 2021.
“I woke up that day just like any other. I got my children ready for school and did my routine workout after they left. I felt no trauma, had no additional exertion, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary,” she recalls. “But then, when I tried to put my makeup on, mascara, actually, I leaned into the mirror and couldn’t see anything out of my right eye.”
Peebles didn’t panic at first, but when she began suffering memory loss, it was clear something was wrong.
“After telling my husband that I was fine, maybe just dehydrated or a little over exerted, I drank a few bottles of water and some Gatorade and ate some toast, said Peebles. “I then reassured him I was fine, got into my car and proceeded to work. This is when things started to become scary.”
Peebles says she missed her turn to the hospital where she worked, a six to seven-minute drive from her home. And then, when she did arrive to the hospital, she didn’t know where she was and says no one looked familiar.
“I struggled to enter my employee ID into the time clock, and then, I walked by a physician I’ve known for years, but at that moment, had no clue who he was. I had no sense of facial recognition,” she says.
Peebles eventually found her manager, who immediately summoned a doctor, who prepared Peebles for a computerized tomography (CT) scan and other interventions.
“They [manager and doctor] called my husband and explained that it appeared that I was exhibiting symptoms consistent with a stroke. They told him they were treating me with TPA (tissue plasminogen activator) and, with his consent, were going to send me via helicopter to a facility that could better treat me,” she says.
Peebles admits the experience left her a bit self-conscious given that she’s used to being the one to administer aid, not receive it. “I felt so vulnerable and embarrassed. I did not want these people who I respected so much to see me in such shape,” she says. But her uneasiness dissipated when a flight nurse with AEL, whom she’s known for a few years, began talking to her.
“Jaime Toler was the medic and nurse that day. And while I couldn’t recognize his face, his calm demeanor affected me in such a way that I knew that I would be taken care of in flight,” she says. And she was right. Peebles arrived safely to her destination, where she received the advanced care she needed, and today, is fully recovered.
What’s more, Peebles is not only a stroke survivor, but also now serving in the same role as Toler, a flight nurse, and is helping patients in the same way she had been treated during her injury. She says her position with AEL is a dream come true and allows her to “pay it forward” when it comes to serving patients.
“I had interacted with medical crews, primarily from AEL, throughout my years in ER, so joining that team had been a goal for me for some time,” she says. “In 2022, I finally took the leap. A second base in Laurens County announced its opening, which resulted in positions being available at the current base, AEL 102. So, I applied for a position with AEL 102, and in September, was hired. Being a patient has definitely made me more empathetic to my own patients, because I’m more cognizant of how vulnerable and frightening it can be to be on that side of the emergency.”
And to ensure air crew members fully understand their roles in a medical emergency, newly hired flight members have to undergo additional base training before they’re permitted to fly as a member of a medical team, and Peebles was no exception. But on one, particular day during her base orientation, Peebles was given an opportunity that would not only allow her to fly with a medical team as a third rider, but also provide her a sense of closure for the worst health crisis she’s ever experienced.
“Our program director got a call that another helicopter was headed to our base to pick up a patient since our base was out of service. No one knew Jamie was the nurse on that flight. Then, when my program director and I walked outside to watch the crew load the patient in the aircraft, Jamie surprisingly asked if I’d like to join the crew because there was room for a third passenger. After getting permission, my program director said ‘yes,’” says Peebles.
The flight, which was not official for Peebles, was fairly routine, apart from Peebles and Toler sharing a few inside jokes and comments about her last experience in the back of an AEL medical aircraft when she was the injured party. But once they landed and unloaded the patient, a slew of memories hit her like a ton of bricks.
“The patient was hot loaded, so the rotors never restarted, nor did I pay attention, at first, to the jet fuel, as the sound of rotors and smell of fuel are normally ‘triggers,’ reminding me of my patient experience. It just seemed surreal, but when we were in the ER to transfer care of the patient on board, I looked around and asked Jamie if this was the same place that I was at last year,” she says. “That’s when he informed me that we were actually standing right next to where my stretcher had been located. That was probably the first time I felt emotional. I can’t really describe the feeling except that it felt like a missing piece of a puzzle finally fell into place. The experience felt so full circle.”
In October 2022, Peebles completed her first patient flight as the medical crew’s nurse. Flight medic Charles Mack, who Peebles has flown with for all of her patient flights with AEL thus far, placed the “wings” on her badge, recognizing her certification. It was a special moment for the humble EMS professional who is quick to pass the credit on to the healthcare providers, family and friends, who she says played a part in her early care and recovery. She hopes her story encourages others, whether facing a physical or emotional challenge, that they, too, can overcome an obstacle, but need to give themselves the “grace” to be human and feel their emotions, first.
“Anger, sadness, frustration, depression, anxiety — it’s okay to feel them all, but don’t allow those feelings to consume you,” says Peebles. Remember why a goal ever became a goal to you, and allow that memory to motivate you go forward, because when you do, you will experience other feelings, like gratitude, pride in yourself and a sense of accomplishment. And these are the sentiments that make your challenge worth fighting.”