ActiveMan writer Joseph LaFave sat down with Benjamin “Kitt” Hunter, a flight paramedic and critical care paramedic working for an air ambulance in the Florida Panhandle. A ten-year veteran of Emergency Medical Services (EMS), he talks about the different challenges and rewards that come with trading in an ambulance for a helicopter.
AM: So you recently transitioned from ground ambulances to the helicopters, how’s that been?
Kitt: it’s been exciting it’s always been a dream of mine to fly. You get to see more critical patients. You aren’t dealing with the usual BS you see on the ambulance; you’re flying real emergencies. Plus, we have a lot more education opportunities, so it’s a lot more mentally stimulating. And of course flying a helicopter is cool.
AM: I know there are a lot of tough jobs, but being a flight medic is certainly towards the top of the list, how do you handle the stress?
Kitt: I usually drink a lot and vent to people. I’m kidding. Flying has a unique set of stress because of the dangers with it. You are more likely to have a helicopter crash than an ambulance crash, so knowing that the danger is always there can wear on you. The patient care isn’t much different. I just make peace with the fact that bad things happen to good people and do my best. The flying is tough, it’s hot and loud, the aircraft is always vibrating, and you’re up in the air and moving fast. You aren’t in your body’s natural state and being in Pensacola means it’s a busy airspace, so you’re always helping the pilot out looking around. It can be a sensory overload, and a lot of people can’t handle it, but if you can get past the danger, it’s great.
As far as relieving stress, I live an active lifestyle, and I try to work out before work. Either a run or lift weights. I live at the beach, so I find solace in the water, whether I’m fishing or just enjoying the beach. I’ve also been getting into stand up paddle boarding which is a lot of fun. I start nursing school in January, so I’m taking prerequisites, so I might be too damn busy to worry about it. I just try to make the most out of my time outside of work, seeing the people I love because I never know when it might be the last time that I get to see them.
AM: How do you get yourself pumped up to go to work?
Kitt: I’m one of those unique individuals who enjoy the job I do. Of course some days I think I could do something else, but once I’m at work, I’m happy. I like hanging out with the pilots and the crew. It’s the ultimate feeling to go in and help someone, so knowing that usually is enough. As soon as I pull in and see the helicopter I’m pumped up and ready to go.
AM: I have to admit, the flight suit looks pretty bad ass
Kitt: It is, and there is nothing I can say about that without making me sound like a tool. It’s pretty badass, it’s a status symbol in the EMS world, and it shows people that you know what you’re doing. Nurses love it enough to get you in trouble. People look to you to make decisions on the scene with it on. Helicopter crews are the best in the business, so we have to be on top of our game. It’s a privilege to wear it after I’ve worked hard to earn it, and I want to make sure that I am properly representing the profession because a lot of people have died to do it.
AM: Recently an air ambulance crashed in North Carolina, what are your feelings about that?
Kitt: Well it hits close to home because EMS, in general, is a small community, you tend to run into people you’ve met at conferences from all over. My heart goes out to them and their families, and I’ve got friends who knew that crew and they were shaken up. It drives home how dangerous every flight is. Every flight could be your last, whether it’s a real mission or just a public relations flight. We have the best helicopter pilots in the world working here, but flying is dangerous.
AM: Hurricane Irma just devastated Florida this past weekend, how did you all prepare for that?
Kitt: The hospital I work for has five aircraft all over Florida and they hangered all the aircraft except for ours because we were out of the way. We were the last aircraft to stay flying. Several of our aircraft are moving down the state to move people from smaller hospitals to the larger hospital and a higher level of care. We’re isolated and very busy, so we’re back to normal operations. Personally, I bought whiskey and moon pies and was ready to ride it out at home.
AM: How do people react when you tell them what you do?
Kitt: a lot of people in the non-medical world don’t understand, so I have to explain exactly what I do. I have to dumb it down for them, but once I’ve explained it, I get that “oh man that’s amazing.” In the first responder community, you get respect, and everyone asks “isn’t that the coolest job?” It is. In the EMS world, a lot of people ask what the steps to get on the helicopter are and if they can fly with us. We try to help people advance their hopes and dreams and education. I love teaching new medics how to improve their skills because I was fortunate to come up working with some great guys who taught me a lot. I try to pay that forward. I hope that everyone in the EMS community achieves their goals.
AM: Any call that stands out from your time on the helicopter?
Kitt: It’s a hard one because you try not think about the bad calls, you focus on the funny ones. I had a patient with a horrific injury who didn’t want pain meds. We were flying to the hospital and had just crossed over land when he said he wanted to tell me a joke. I think I must have looked at him kind of strange because he started laughing and then said one of the dirtiest jokes I’ve ever heard. I couldn’t believe how tough he was. Even in bad calls like that, you feel a connection with a complete stranger, and that restores your faith in humanity. The best part of any call is seeing how everyone comes together to work for the best outcome for your patient.
Flying is a dangerous job, but we're lucky to have men like Kitt who go out every day looking to make a difference.