“We try to utilize every moment we have to the max, because everything is Rush! Go! Fast!”


Clockwise from top right: Longo, Scanzello, Thomas and the fourth member of the PennSTAR Flight team, communications specialist Warren Adair, who works the communications base at the helipad.

PennSTAR Flight pilot, 4 years
PennSTAR Flight nurse, 12 years
PennSTAR Flight paramedic, 4 years

Photo by Candace diCarlo

The speed demons of emergency medical transport are in a funk.

The PennSTAR 2 medevac flight crew has rushed to Lakewood, N.J., to transfer a critically ill patient to Presbyterian Medical Center, only to find that the attending physician insisted the man have dialysis first. So now the three crew members have to cool their heels for 2 1/2 hours, keeping them from responding to an accident in Lower Merion. Since I’m following them around on this day, I’m stuck there too.

“This doesn’t happen too often,” said Nancy Scanzello, that day’s flight nurse, about the squabble that led to the layover in Lakewood. Fortunately, another PennSTAR helicopter — the Health System operates three — was able to cover the accident. But it was still annoying to the crew that ought to have been there, since the forced downtime kept them from fulfilling their mission, which is, in Scanzello’s words, “We take sick people. We fly ’em fast. We get to help make them well.”

Flight paramedic Kevin Thomas said of the layover: “We try to utilize every moment we have to the max, because everything is Rush! Go! Fast! And here we are, forced to slow down. Nobody’s taking it well.”

Like with most emergency services, the PennSTAR crew’s typical day consists of periods of waiting punctuated by bursts of intense activity. But that doesn’t mean they’re not busy while waiting. The crew members perform all of the support functions necessary to keep the service stocked and ready for anything. And on this particular late February Monday, they also took time to talk about their work.

Q. Do you three always work together?

A. Kevin: There’s a total rotation. The pilots all have a different rotation from the nurses and paramedics. We may all work together for one week and then not see each other except at shift change for three weeks.

The nice thing about it is that you get to see different ways of doing things. Nancy may have one way of doing things, I may have another. We all learn from each other.

Q. What do you all do while waiting to fly?

A. Nancy: We have no clerical staff, essentially, so we all pick up the slack. Kevin’s the medical supervisor, and he flies. I do quality assurance, and I fly. Someone else is in charge of ordering supplies, and she flies. Generally, if you find something interesting [to do in the crew quarters], you pick it up, because someone’s got to do it and if it’s going to be done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. Everyone’s found something they like, and things get done.

Q. Tell me a little bit about the chopper.

A. Tom: It’s built by a company called Eurocopter — a conglomeration of Aerospatiale and Messerschmitt. It’s true German engineering — simple, efficient, but not really all that comfortable a ride. It cost $4.5 million, and that’s a lot. But it has [low] operating costs, and we face cost constraints every day.

It has all the latest navigation equipment, including GPS [Global Positioning System]. Generally, by the time we’re ready to lift, it knows where we are and where we’re going.

Q. What do you like most about the job?

A. Nancy: The flying.

Kevin: You don’t know what’s next. You don’t know where you’re going to be, you don’t know what you’re going to do. In five minutes, you could be untangling someone from a wreck in New Jersey or rushing in a heart attack patient from Atlantic City. If you sit behind a desk and you see the same thing every day, I could understand getting bored. There’s no boredom here.

Tom: I just drive. I have the easiest job. These are the guys that do all the work.

Q. Is there anything you dislike about the job?

A. Kevin: No. A lot of people say, I hate to see the death and dying and stuff, but you know what? It’s part of the job. It’s an occupational hazard. There are people who understand that we transport the most critically sick and injured, and they understand that going in. If you can’t deal with that, you need to find another profession.

Nancy: The paperwork. Flying out and taking care of someone is the best part of the job, and documenting it all is the worst.

Q. How do people react when you respond to an accident?

A. Kevin: We find that people are hospitable towards us. Nancy and I were on a New Year’s Eve [accident] scene where a car had flipped over in Delaware County. Two people had died and the guy underneath [the wreck] was heavily traumatized. The lady whose lawn the car crashed on made her home available to us. We asked her to heat up IV bags in the microwave so we could keep our hands warm. And then she went down to the Wawa and came back with hot chocolate for all of us.

Q. Do you actually perform lifesaving work on board the helicopter?

A. Kevin: Sure, the medical intervention that we do on the way is lifesaving. [The chopper is equipped with a full set of medical supplies and all the instruments needed to support a patient in intensive care.] But what’s really lifesaving is that it takes only six minutes to get from Plymouth Meeting Mall to HUP, and that’s where the trauma surgeons come in and do the rest.


Originally published on March 22, 2001