July 16, 2004

5 – Faces of Vanderbilt LifeFlight

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Dana Keele/ Photo by Anne Rayner

5 – Faces of Vanderbilt LifeFlight

Dana Keele

Dana Keele, a flight communicator for LifeFlight, recently had a very good day. She was recognized by her colleagues with the inaugural “Flight Communicator of the Year” award.

But Keele will humbly tell you that “my best day is a day that we complete each of our missions safely.”

“[The award] was awesome because it came from my peers,” she says. “More here than anywhere I’ve been employed, it’s a team effort and we get support. You couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”

Keele has worked for LifeFlight since 1999, and was an EMT/dispatcher for an ambulance service prior to joining Vanderbilt.

“It’s very stressful but I guess from the moment I went to EMT school, I knew I wanted to be in communications,” she says. “This was where my heart was.”

The job of a flight communicator takes multi-tasking to a new level. “We coordinate everything,” she says. “We’re the hub.”

Keele, who sits in “FlightComm” on the helipad atop the Medical Center, is responsible for all incoming calls for LifeFlight, the fixed wings and the ANGEL pediatric transport. Incoming calls can include the 911 dispatch center from the county where the patient was injured, a contact person from the scene and even patient families frantically calling about their loved ones. She also has to ask the pilots for weather checks, locate the scene and send the exact coordinates to the scene so the flight pilot can reach patients quickly and safely.

Additionally, for the past year-and-a-half, Keele has been doing outreach work with several EMS agencies and works at the transfer center, which takes calls from outlying hospitals from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

“I visit with six to seven Tennessee counties every month,” she says. “I go to the dispatch centers and to the ambulance stations. It is a wonderful way to meet with folks who we talk to on a regular basis and to keep in touch with them.”

One might think that after years of working in emergency medical situations, Keele would eventually become numb to the daily life-and-death drama.

But Keele has never lost compassion for each patient transported through the years — especially the pediatric cases, which she admits are the toughest to endure.

“They recently pronounced an 8-year old dead on the helipad — those days are hard,” she says with noticeable sadness. “I’m a mom of three and its hurts to see anybody in pain — especially a mom who has just lost a child. I come in and do my job and go home safely and come back in the morning. That doesn’t happen like that for everyone.”

Not knowing the fate of many of the patients that LifeFlight transports on her shifts is also something that weighs heavy on her heart.

“There are many times I just don’t know the outcome,” she says.

She did learn the outcome of one memorable patient.

It happened several years ago when Keele was responsible for helping the ambulance service she was working for at the time safely reach a drunk driving accident victim on a late, rainy night. Word of the crew’s efforts spread, landing Keele in a music video for a song called “Angels Among Us” by the country band Alabama, and the story was later printed in a book by the same name.

But most importantly to Keele, the victim made a full recovery.

“Of course, I was excited and honored to be asked to be in the video,” Keele says. “I don’t feel like an angel and I know I am not one, but I know that I was able to do my job that night and was there when I was needed.”