Scott Brown saw angels. With the whirling beat of helicopter blades above and the Mississippi River far below, he studied their faces, sure they’d be the last he’d see on earth. He saw calm compassion. Their voices were soothing, like a mother’s to her child, as they told him what would happen next.
Not long before, Brown had started having sharp, shooting pains around his waist. He thought it was something like kidney stones or, at worst, his appendix. But when the pains literally put him on the floor, he had his wife drive him to Perry County Memorial Hospital in his town of Perryville, Missouri, about half way between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau.
A Higher Level of Care
The doctors there put him on a morphine drip, but the pain persisted. They put him on fentanyl, which eased his discomfort some, but he knew something was still wrong. After further examination, Brown was diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm: an enlarged area in lower part of the major vessel that supplies blood to the body.
The problem with these types of aneurysms is that they grow slowly, making them difficult to detect until there is a crisis like a rupture, at which point it’s too late. It was determined that Brown’s aorta was leaking blood, causing intense, constant pressure on his abdomen. There’s only a 20 percent survival rate for an internal complication of this kind. It could rupture at any time—hours, minutes, seconds—it was impossible to say with certainty. He needed the care of a Level-1 or Level-2 trauma center. He needed to go to St. Louis.
A ground ambulance was out of the question. Even the relatively smooth roads of I-55 north were too jarring and would simply increase the likelihood of a rupture. Besides, even with sirens blaring it was an hour-and-a-half drive. Brown didn’t have that kind of time.
Angels on Rotor Wings
The ER nurse called Air Evac Lifeteam (AEL), a helicopter air ambulance service that has a base in Perryville. When AEL came to his town, Brown had secured the peace-of-mind of AirMed Care Network: which means he knew he would not incur any out-of-pocket expenses for the flight. He had thought it was good to have, though he had been sure he’d never need it. Now, he had more important things to worry about.
AEL was there in a few minutes. Brown kissed his wife goodbye. He thought of his children and their children. He prayed. As he was moved from a gurney into the bay of the helicopter, he was convinced he wouldn’t make it, he’d never see his loved ones again. The helicopter lifted off into the autumn air.
That’s when Brown saw his angels. They weren’t in his imagination or some fevered glimpse of the great beyond. Flight Nurse Lisa Pittman and Flight Medic Rayna Periman hovered over him, but they didn’t have wings.
They talked to him about what was happening even as they stabilized him for his journey. They told him that surgeons were waiting at Mercy West Hospital in St. Louis. That, once there, he would quickly get the care he needed. That’s when Brown started to believe—not in angels necessarily—but that he might just make it.
A Flight to Remember
He vaguely remembers seeing the mighty Mississippi in its serpentine course ever southward as he flew north. He learned later that his pilot, Randy Varady, was keeping the aircraft altitude as low as possible to reduce the air pressure on his aneurysm: another angel bringing his skill to bear to save Brown’s life.
Pittman and Periman continued to soothe him even as they treated him. A mere 32 minutes later they touched down on the helipad at Mercy West. He was taken off the helicopter and sent directly for a CAT scan to confirm the aneurysm and determine its exact location. He was wheeled into surgery and several hours later they had grafted his aorta together, stopping the leak and the potential for rupture. Thirteen days later, Brown left the hospital, his wife and children by his side.
A Prayer for the Living
Determined to meet his personal angels, Brown set up a time to come to the AEL Perryville base. Even with face coverings and observing social distancing due to COVID-19, it was an emotional event for all involved. Brown told Pittman, Periman and Varady, that he was forever indebted to them, that they would always be his angels. He had even made a shirt emblazoned with wings and the names of the AEL crew forever near his heart.
Brown lives only a few miles from the AEL base. He often hears the helicopters and watches them pass over. He always says a little prayer—not only for the patient aboard that may be clinging to life, grasping for hope—but also for the crew that, God willing, will become someone else’s very own angels.