published Monday, July 14th, 2014

Moment: Angel of the air — Life Force flight nurse flies to new heights

Heather Wilson knew at an early age that she wanted to be a paramedic or a nurse. She also knew that she wanted to fly. She saw Erlanger's Life Force helicopter for the first time in elementary school and it quickly became an obsession.

"Even now if I see or hear the helicopter I will just stop and stare. I just get really excited about it," she said.

While still in high school, Wilson found a job listing for a flight nurse on Erlanger's website. The requirements for the job became her goals list.

After graduating, she got a job at Erlanger North as a unit clerk in the emergency room while knocking out her prerequisite classes at Chattanooga State Community College. Her checklist included becoming a nurse, EMT and paramedic, which she accomplished while working various hospital and ambulance jobs.

Having never flown before, she went on the first of three ride-alongs with Life Force when she was 18.

"I don't get carsick and love roller coasters, and I'm not afraid of heights, so wasn't too worried about it," she said.

The list also included several specialized certifications, including basic life support and advanced cardiac life support, both of which she is certified to teach.

After completing every item on the list, she applied to be a Life Force flight nurse and said she "freaked out" when she found out that she had been chosen for the job.

Her first flight after orientation was a car accident on Interstate 40. A teenager had rolled her car and was trapped. The road was shut down and the helicopter landed in the middle of the highway.

The crew was taking the injured girl back to the hospital, Wilson said, when "it just kind of sunk in that I had made it, and I was hopefully going to be able to make a difference in somebody's life."

The helicopter is like an airborne ICU, she said. Traveling at an average speed of 120 knots, or 138 mph, the craft carries medications, blood products, a blood warmer, antivenom for snakebites, a ventilator and various monitors.

"It's not just a ride. We can do what they do in the hospital in there," Wilson said.

She still gets butterflies when a call comes in, but she says she is also excited, because she knows that the crew is going to be able to help someone.

"I am 100 percent in love with my job. It's what I believe that I was made to do," she said.

Moment is a weekly column by the Times Free Press photo staff that explores the seldom-told stories of our region.

Heather Wilson smiles as she gets equipment ready to return to Life Force 1 after a call.
Heather Wilson smiles as she gets equipment ready to return to Life Force 1 after a call.
about Angela Lewis Foster...

Angela Lewis Foster has been a photojournalist with the Chattanooga Free Press and then the Chattanooga Times Free Press for 23 years. A Chattanooga native, Angela graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications, with emphasis on photography. She has won 29 state and regional awards and honors since the merger of the Chattanooga Free Press and the Chattanooga Times in 1999. She loves cats, gardening and shopping ...

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