Albion native Whitley Emge, BSN, RN, CEN, is a Flight Nurseat Air Evac 138 in Harrisburg, Ill., who just completed her 50thpatient flight after six months of working for the company.
Emge grew up in a single-parent home, spending most of her time with her grandparents. Emge grew up living with her family in low-income, government housing for nearly 17 years.
During that time, Emge says,“my grandparents were often sick and needed higher levels of care.”
Though she didn’t know it at the time, these situations were shaping her future and her desire to help others in crisis.
“When emergent situations would happen, my biggest worry was getting them to the hospital in time. The closest hospital from our house was almost thirty minutes away and was a critical access hospital that did not have any specialties that they needed.”
This lack of access to specific care weighed on Emge and furthered her desire to help people. However, she didn’t wait until she was “old enough” to begin learning how to help those in need around her.
“As a young kid, I learned to treat hypoglycemia, manage fluid restrictions, pack extensive wounds, change oxygen bottles and calculate if the oxygen levels remaining in the bottle was enough to get around town.”
Years later, she would go on to pursue that passion in college.
“I started working as an activities assistant in a local nursing home while I worked on my CNA. I then worked as a CNA in a nursing home while I went to nursing school. I worked my way up from a CNA to LPN, then eventually obtained my RN.”
Emge worked her way up to becoming an RN where she discovered her true passion.
“After obtaining my RN, I obtained my Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from the University of Southern Indiana. I started working in critical care at a Select Specialty Hospital where I found my love for fast paced critical patient care. After a year, I moved on to Deaconess ER where I stayed until my opportunity opened up to fly.”
For Emge, the challenges associated with fast-paced critical patient care were invigorating, but she wanted more.
“I wanted to challenge myself and attempt to perform critical care in a different environment. When any flight crew would bring a patient into the ER, I would ask them, ‘What do I need to do to get where you are?’”
Recalling the issues her grandparents faced concerning access to specialty care, becoming a flight nurse seemed to be a logical next step for her.
“Air Evac provided the access that rural areas need for the best chance of survival. I wanted to be a part of the solution in helping rural communities.”
It was also her love of rural America that drove her to pursue becoming a flight nurse.
“Rural communities have the biggest hearts and demonstrate a true love for their families, friends and neighbors. They deserve to utilize the resources that are available to those living in larger cities.”
However, the road to becoming a flight nurse wouldn’t be so easy for Emge.
“I actually interviewed for Air Evac in 2015 and was the top candidate at the time but was 40 pounds over the weight limit. I was devastated at losing an opportunity that I had worked so hard for…”
Despite initially not being accepted into the program, Emge didn’t lose hope.
“But, I realized it wasn’t the right time and God was waiting for the best time for me. A lot had to change before I would get the opportunity to apply again. I had to get healthy physically and mentally.”
Over the next four years, Emge worked on developing herself as a professional and as a person.
“I spent the next four years improving my nursing skills and knowledge, losing weight and getting into shape, and started working on my spirituality and began my road to recovery.”
Emge’s acceptance day did come, though. To date, she has been working for Air Evac for six months. But, even after she got on at Air Evac, she had to undergo a rigorous training process.
“The training is ongoing at Air Evac. In the first six months, you do what is called ‘Regional Intensive’ every other month, where you run through multiple realistic scenarios all day on a human-patient simulation mannequin that is extremely realistic.”
This human patient simulation mannequin doesn’t just look realistic, either. It is specifically designed to emulate a living human patient.
“The mannequin can breathe, blink, it has a heartbeat and pulses. We can start IV’s and intubate just like we would on a real patient transport.”
These mannequins are necessary because it allows the flight crew to practice and keep their skills sharp. The Regional Intensive training that Emge mentioned is host to a number of exhaustive critical patient care exercises.
“The scenarios are generally extremely difficult and require a lot of critical thinking. Practice like you play is the motto.”
Emge noted that the scenarios are so realistic that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the moment to the point that the run through nearly becomes reality.
One of my first scenarios was so real, when the educator stopped the scenario he said, ‘You guys were so into the moment you forgot it was a fake patient.’ The practice space is set up in a tiny corner so you feel like you are really working inside of a helicopter.”
Now that she’s part of the flight crew, Emge has a busy work routine.
“Every morning during shift change, we talk to the crew that worked the day before and discuss any challenging flights that they might need to debrief from. We talk about each other’s lives. They are coworkers but they feel like family.”
After the outgoing crew leaves, says Emge, they do their daily equipment checks within the aircraft, ensuring that everything is charged, stocked and working properly. They take care of those checks on top of their general duties on base (cleaning, practicing skills, reviewing charts, etc.).
But, it’s not all work and no play for the flight crew. They still take time to unwind.
“In the evenings, if we are not flying, we watch movies together and make dinner just like a family, and, I have to say, some of the crew members are pretty good cooks.”
Despite this, the crew deeply feels its obligation of service to the community. And, after starting working with Air Evac, Emge had an interaction that will remain engrained in her memory.
“During a fundraiser for kids, we met a lot of people from the Harrisburg area. Many thanked us for our service, but one gentleman told me that he sleeps better at night knowing that we are here and can get him quickly where he needs to be if something bad happens to him.”
Emge noted that the gentleman went on to explain that his brother was in a terrible car accident and only survived because he was transported to a trauma center in under thirty minutes and on the operating table in under one hour after the accident’s occurrence.
For Emge, it’s interactions like these that make it all worth it.
“Knowing that gentleman feels safe is worth all of the training and hard work put into this job. That comfort is what I wanted as a kid for my family.”