July 16, 2004

3 – Faces of Vanderbilt LifeFlight

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Kevin High/Photo by Dana Johnson

3 – Faces of Vanderbilt LifeFlight

Kevin High

“Trauma is a disease — it doesn’t give a damn who you are. It touches all ages, all socio-economic levels, all races, all creeds. It doesn’t matter — it doesn’t care who you are. It can affect you, ” says Kevin High, R.N.

Trauma is something the flight nurse fights on a daily basis as a crew member of LifeFlight. And it has also touched him personally.

Six months before he started flying, High’s father was seriously injured in an ATV accident.

“LifeFlight flew him on one of the helicopters we still have, and my colleagues took care of him,” High says. But his father’s injuries were too serious to successfully treat.

“One of the things you learn in this line of work is how fast your life can change,” High says. “You recognize the finality of it.”

Even the tragedy of losing his father didn’t deter him from seeking a position with LifeFlight. It was something he had wanted to do since shortly after finishing nursing school.

“I was working in a small little ER down in South Georgia. My third week there, the flight program from Tallahassee, Fla. landed their brand new aircraft right there on the grass in front of the hospital,” he says. “I was standing there and watched it land, and this really beautiful young lady got out, and I just thought—for a lot of different reasons—‘I really want to do that.’”

High notes that high-acuity patient care, teaching and contributing to research also attracted him to Vanderbilt’s LifeFlight program.

With the goal of being a flight nurse, High worked in the Vanderbilt Emergency Department for three years before being offered a position on the crew in 1993.

It’s now a decade later. Though a lot of things have changed for High and for the LifeFlight program, one thing hasn’t—the intensity of the work that High and his fellow crew members take on each day.

“We are called upon to make decisions that most people in the span of their life will never have to make,” he says. “I mean walking up to somebody, and in 30 seconds, sizing them up and saying ‘he’s going to live’ or ‘he’s going to die’ and walking on. There’s no way you can train somebody to do that. It’s something you have to want to do, and it’s something that you have to want to keep doing.”

Beyond the stress of life and death decisions, High and his team face the environmental hazards that come with the territory. But High said that even though there is a level of danger to his line of work, he doesn’t feel like he’s putting his life at risk.

“Safety is a discipline, and we live that discipline. We have a zero tolerance for accidents,” he says.

That’s not to say High has never been scared while he’s been on the job. “I have had about five or six missions that I’ve been so scared of what is going on — of what was happening to my patient — that if I could have jumped out, I would have,” High says. These experiences are what bring the crew together, he says.

“I can sit in a room with my colleagues and mentally go around the table, and I can think of two or three really bad situations that I have experienced with each one of them and how we pulled together and handled that and did the right thing for the patient,” High says. “You make friends and you have relationships here that are different than any other job.”

And doing the right thing for the patient is what makes it worth the hazards, the nights, the hours.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been a nurse for almost 20 years. What Vanderbilt has offered me is the opportunity to grow – professionally and personally – and to do it in an environment where I’ve been supported and encouraged,” High says.

“Yeah, it’s a good gig.”