John Scholvin

John Scholvin

still can’t fit a half-stack in the trunk

14 Feb 2024


medevac helicopter flight path

1IL2 -> 4IS3

Dad heard it first. “What the hell is that?”

I wasn’t entirely sure right away, either, but it was obviously coming from outside. A repetitive, mechanical thumping sound, distant yet growing steadily louder. Was it some piece of maintenance equipment on the rail line? I looked out the fifth floor window to the BNSF tracks below and saw nothing. Some Hinsdale millionaire having a tree stump ground out to make way for an outdoor Cararra marble kitchen? No, nothing moving over there in the neighborhood. Then I looked up. There it was: a chopper coming in to land on the helipad that sits atop the hospital’s parking garage.

I’ve been in a helicopter, one of those tourist rides above the cliffs and waterfalls of Kauai about thirty years ago. Breathtaking but also gut-churning. I haven’t been back up in one since. And lord, the noise. There’s a reason they put those heavy steel headphones on you. This was the first time I’ve seen or heard one land at a reasonable distance. It seemed to happen in slow motion, this stocky medevac chopper that just moments ago was doing 120 knots, now hovering gracefully, dragonfly-like, as it eased down onto the big white X of the pad. It looked like an easy touchdown. The windsock at the edge of the pad hung limp and still. I bet that’s a whole different experience in a snowstorm, or with an August squall line passing through.

As the rotors quickly slowed, we watched the techs jump out and roll a gurney from the aft hatch. They weren’t in any particular hurry, and though our vantage point was at some distance, we could see that there was no person on the gurney, just mounds of equipment packed in brightly colored weatherproof bags. They made a casual descent down the ramp to their special entry to the hospital, flanked by a couple of bored security guys. This wasn’t like what I remember from watching ER. This was businesslike and perfunctory. Where was the amped up Dr. Ross screaming orders? Why wasn’t a nurse straddling a patient, frantically administering chest compressions? Shouldn’t someone be holding an IV bag over their head, screaming into a walkie-talkie? Real emergency medicine is way more boring than TV.

I had to head out a few minutes later to run some errands. As I walked to the elevators, I passed the same flight team and all their extraordinary gear in the hallway. They were getting ready to transfer someone onto that gurney for the ride of their life, maybe literally. Julie told me later that she saw them walk that gurney back out to the copter on the pad, now with a person clearly on it, and a large entourage of nurses and techs trailing with the equipment we’d seen packed on that gurney earlier. This was more ER-ish for sure. She saw them lift off and make their way quickly east, and I’m bummed I missed that scene.

A little bit of digging around in FlightAware later revealed that they flew the patient to the University of Chicago hospital in Hyde Park. They got there in nine minutes; it’d have taken well over an hour in an ambulance, even with the lights on. Looks like they went straight over Midway at about 1,600 feet. Cool.

Later, our ICU nurse, Susie, told me the chopper takes patients fairly regularly from their suburban satellite location to the mother ship in the city, though most often it’s NICU patients. It was a bit unusual to have an adult making the trip this time. She said this particular patient needed some piece of equipment that just wasn’t available at this facility. I paused for a minute to think what that flight must have cost, and what that patient was billed for that exotic equipment they went to go use, too.

Greatest healthcare system in the world, they say.