ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Daniel Delgado estimates he has been a flight nurse on about 3,000 Lifeguard flights.
He has treated victims trapped in car wrecks and has tended patients while they were flown to other states. He has been doing the job for 20 years and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
Delgado is the longest-serving crew member with Lifeguard Air Emergency Services, which celebrated its 25th anniversary Saturday.
“I think we’ve made a huge difference in helping New Mexico,” Delgado said. “We’ve saved a lot of people’s lives.”
Lifeguard is based at University of New Mexico Hospital and consists of two airplanes, each manned by a pilot, a flight nurse and a medical technician.
There is no typical day for a Lifeguard crew, because missions range from extracting victims from the wreckage of car crashes to taking patients to surrounding states for special care. Lifeguard also specializes in missions to rural New Mexico, where people who need urgent care can be nearly impossible to reach by ambulance.
Kevin Schitoskey, chief flight nurse of Lifeguard, said New Mexico’s geography makes Lifeguard services particularly necessary, since the state has a large area and many areas are sparsely populated.
Delgado has encountered the bizarre and the surreal in his 20 years of flight. (He once had to abort a landing in Mexico because he was being accused of kidnapping his patient). But he said the memories that stick with him are mostly poignant – moments when someone lived despite near-impossible odds, and also moments when they didn’t.
He recalled a woman who was trapped in the wreckage of a van, her body badly mangled after a head-on collision. It took 2 1/2 hours to cut her from the wreckage, and Delgado didn’t expect she would survive, he said.
But she did survive. She also got her doctorate, and she calls Delgado once in awhile. He said that kind of gratitude is one of the main things that makes the job worthwhile.
“We have tons of patients who come back and thank us for what we’ve done for them,” he said. “It’s kind of mushy sounding, but it’s really nice.”
Schitoskey said Lifeguard flies about 50 flights per month, depending on demand. Although the service now flies only fixed-wing aircraft, it also used a helicopter for about 15 years and made even more flights during that time.
The planes Lifeguard uses now are Beechcraft King Air E-90s. Each plane is equipped with nearly everything one might find in an emergency room, all in a space so small that crew members can’t stand fully upright and can move only a few feet in any direction.
Because of the added challenges of working on a Lifeguard crew, standards are high and turnover is low, Schitoskey said. The average tenure of a crew member is 17 years, he said.
Delgado said working as a flight nurse is like no other job in medicine, and he wouldn’t trade it for a hospital setting.“You have to know what you’re doing to do what we do,” he said. “It’s me and my crew out in the middle of nowhere with a really sick patient. There’s no X-rays and no labs. … By the time I get a doctor on the radio or the phone, the guy could be dead.”