Todd Branda is a Base Pilot Supervisor at Air Evac 129 in Idabel, Okla. He never thought too much about the path he took to becoming an air medical pilot until Air Evac Lifeteam helped save his newborn daughter’s life.
An Army veteran, Todd was thrilled when his daughter, Amelia Jo, was born on November 11, 2020 – Veterans Day. Amelia Jo is a miracle on so many levels, Todd said. “She is an IVF baby for my wife, Erica, and me.”
Erica is a nurse in Idabel and although it had been 10 years since she cared for a newborn, six days after her daughter was born, she knew something wasn’t right. “She was so fussy, but she didn’t have any other symptoms,” Erica said.
“Erica was feeding her and tried to burp her,” Todd recalled. “Amelia Jo quit breathing. Erica managed to get her breathing again, but it happened two more times before EMS got here.”
Their baby girl had a rare form of bacterial meningitis and was suffering seizures. “I feel like my nursing all went out the window, but my body instinctively did everything it needed to do,” Erica said.
“Amelia Jo’s body was completely stiff,” Todd said. “You couldn’t open her mouth to see if she was choking or what. It was horrible.” He managed to dial 911 and tell them who he worked for. “You need to get 129 here,” Todd told the dispatcher. When they called him back, Todd found out his Idabel crew was on another flight, so the De Queen, Ark., crew was on the way to the airport in Broken Bow, Okla.
Flight paramedic and Base Clinical Lead Michael Sipes knew the scene flight location and the weight of the patient, and thought to himself, “I sure hope that’s not Todd’s baby.” Knowing the crew is flying a baby adds a whole other level, and Sipes said it’s even more personal when you know the family.
McCurtain County EMS transported Erica and Amelia Jo to the airport, and Todd followed behind. “From the time Todd called 911 to the time Air Evac arrived was maybe 25-30 minutes,” Erica said.
The De Queen Air Evac Lifeteam crew flew tiny Amelia Jo and Erica to Dallas Children’s. The pilot, so used to being in the air transporting the sickest of the sick, was now on the ground driving over three hours to see his newborn daughter.
“They immediately started her on three different types of antibiotics for three different causes, and they figured it was meningitis,” Todd said. “They didn’t have an hour to spare.”
She spent 15 days in the NICU, and is home now with her parents in Broken Bow. After three days at the hospital with his family, Todd drove three hours back to their home to retrieve some clothes for the longer hospital stay. He called his uncle to occupy his time and his mind on the drive.
“It took a while before we knew that she was out of the weeds,” he said. “I kept wondering why this was happening to us.” His uncle had a different view. “’You and Erica were put on this earth for that moment in time – for that baby girl,’” he told Todd. At that instant, Todd’s attitude from “Why us?” to “Thank goodness it happened to us.”
If it wasn’t for his wife and her expertise, Amelia Jo wouldn’t have made it out of the house. If not for the 911 dispatchers and EMS, she would not have made it to the airport in Broken Bow, and if not for his Air Evac Lifeteam family, he would not have his Christmas miracle. And the staff at Dallas Children’s? “The hospital staff went above and beyond,” Todd said. “You wouldn’t believe it. They had no less than 30 medical professionals working on her throughout the whole stay.”
He’s always had a great respect for everyone in the Air Evac family, and that love and respect for his co-workers has grown. The De Queen, Ark., crew of pilot Stewart Hutchinson, flight nurse Rita Camp and flight paramedic Michael Sipes flew tiny Amelia Jo to Dallas. That, Todd said, was another blessing. “I can’t imagine that my (Idabel) med crew wouldn’t be affected if they had to fly her,” he said. “I know the De Queen crews, too, but I think they were a little bit removed from it, and they could do their job just like they had to.”
He praised the communicators in West Plains, Mo., with whom he talks every time he’s on shift. “They did a great job,” Todd said. “I talk to them so much over the radio, and on my first hitch back, I called and Andy asked how Amelia Jo was doing. The personal interaction between pilots and dispatchers…we all have our favorites and they all have theirs. They are an extension of us in the field. They play as integral a role as we do on that helicopter.”
Todd recalled the many times he has spoken to family members as they watched a loved one being loaded onto his helicopter. “I’ve spoken to families as we took their loved one,” he said. “I’ve told them we will take good care of them and get them to the hospital safely.” It’s what he thought they wanted to hear…what might give them some comfort. “Now I can tell them, ‘I’ve been in your shoes.’”