Duke Life Flight celebrates 30 years of saving lives

Duke Life Flight (file photo)

This year marks 30 years since Duke took to the sky to treat patients. Since then, Duke Life Flight has helped thousands of people.

One of those people is Kyle Cashwell.

Cashwell was seriously injured in a tractor accident while working with a corn picker in a Sampson County field last October.

“I reached down in it to pull the stuff out and all of a sudden the tractor came on. The chains caught me and threw my arms into the rollers,” Cashwell said. “It went up through the rollers. I threw my right leg up onto the machine and when I did, I pried my arm out, I fell backwards. My right leg fell into the chains, grabbed my right leg and pulled it all the way to the top.”

Cashwell, who is a paramedic, knew he needed to slow the bleeding. He was able to apply a tourniquet using his belt, which helped him reach his cell phone, allowing him to call 911.

“When I grabbed by belt, I reckon I pulled it around and [the cell phone] was laying on my stomach. I could get to it. It was ringing.”

He said he knew he was quickly losing blood and was too far from a trauma center, so he specifically asked for a helicopter.

“I’ve put many a people, lots and lots of people, through the back door. I never thought I’d see myself going through the backdoor of it,” he said.

An ambulance took him to a field where he then entered the Duke Life Flight helicopter. Cashwell had said his final goodbyes to his wife Kristy.

“I never thought I’d live through it. I had no idea I’d live to make it to Duke. I had lost that much blood,” he said.

Kristy Cashwell said the goodbye was difficult and once her husband was on the helicopter all she could do was hope and pray.

“It was very emotional. We prayed and asked God just to heal him and ease his pain. His mother and I prayed over him in the ambulance and he told me he loved me but he was hurting badly but there was nothing I could do,” she said.

Kyle Cashwell was lifted into the air on the helicopter and in the hands of the Duke Life Flight team, a team that included paramedic Patrick Falvey, who took over from crews on the ground.

“The folks who took care of him had tourniquets on and they had everything dressed up and it’s like they did an awesome job,” Falvey said. “They’re the ones who saved this guy’s life. They put the tourniquets on. They stopped the bleeding.”

Falvey treated Cashwell as they raced toward Duke University Hospital.

“His blood pressure was a little low but he was talking to us,” he said.

Cashwell was not just talking to the crew, he was trying to tell them what to do.

“I was trying to explain to them, ‘We got to do this. We got to do that.’ And they’re like, ‘Kyle, we’ve got this.'”

Falvey said Cashwell’s injuries were the kind that you’d see after an IED explosion. Cashwell needed blood.

Luckily for Cashwell, the team always carries two units of blood on board and paramedics were able to give him some as they flew to the hospital.

The chopper has everything you’d find on a typical ambulance, and then some.

Life Flight team members can do just about everything an intensive care unit can do.

“I’m amazed by the things that we’re able to do every day,” said Joshua Davis, a Life Flight crew member and paramedic.

What they do every day is performed at half a mile high and at 130 mph.

“It’s actually significantly smoother than riding down the interstate once you’re at cruise. No stop lights. No traffic,” Davis said.

Life Flight flew its first patient on March 1, 1985. Since then, the program has expanded to include two helicopters and six critical care ambulances. The team of 70 includes nurses, drivers, communicators, and office and support staff.

It includes pilot George Leaming, who told WNCN during a recent flight that he doesn’t think too much about what’s happening behind him on the helicopter.   

 “Well you kind of isolate yourself from it. That’s their job,” he said.

 “You don’t want any more distractions than you have to have.”

While the helicopter is at the heart of the Life Flight name, the team does more transports by ground than by air.

“You have limited resources, but you know how to use the resources and you get very creative with what you can do and you make things work,” Falvey said.

Falvey started flying in 1990 and said that while some things have changed over the years, the main goal has stayed the same.

“Technology has clearly changed and some of the training has changed, but the part that remains the same is really the love for the patient care and doing what’s best for the patient,” he said.

Davis joined Life Flight four years ago after 10 years as an ER nurse. When he joined the team, he fulfilled a lifelong goal.

When Davis was 9 years old his youngest brother was born in Fayetteville with a cardiac defect that many don’t survive. Duke Life Flight took his brother, at just about a day old, to Duke for open heart surgery.

“At that point, I thought ‘That’s the coolest job in the world. I would love to do it,’” he said. “[I’m] happy to say now that my brother Tyler is 25 years old [and] he’s getting his masters in film studies in San Francisco and everything is all good.”

Outcomes like that, and Kyle Cashwell’s, motivate the flight team.

“He was in a tough way and we were just a small part and now he gets to go home and hug his kids and that’s really the cool part,” Falvey said of Cashwell.

Including the choppers, as well as the critical care ambulances, Life Flight averages more than 5,000 patient cases per year.

Life Flight will celebrate 30 years of the program on Saturday, April 25 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield.

The event is free and will include food, music and demonstrations.

Copyright WNCN 2015. All rights reserved.

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