José “Joe” Rios, 45, is a veteran flight nurse for San Antonio AirLife, the emergency response helicopter system that responds to accidents within a 150-mile radius of the city. Under special circumstances, AirLife will rescue patients outside its jurisdiction, such as during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Born and raised in Del Rio, Rios attended the Baptist School of Nursing in San Antonio on a full scholarship and graduated in 1989. Over the course of his career, he has worked as a pharmacy technician, security guard, hospital secretary, nursing assistant, licensed vocational nurse, emergency department nurse, and intensive care unit nurse. He joined AirLife in 1990. Married with three kids, Rios works three 12-hour shifts a week (either days or nights).
Rios’s story in his own words:
Every call is different. You might be going out for a trauma, a medical patient, a cardiac, a drowning, near drowning, obstetrics, you never know. You sit there and wait for the tones `the call` to go off. When the tones go, you have to be ready to jump into action. You can’t anticipate everything possible. There are situations that come up that are like, “Wow, I never thought about that.”
The team consists of the pilot, a nurse, and a paramedic. When they dispatch us, they don’t tell us what it’s for because the pilot needs to make a decision based solely on the location and the weather. They don’t tell him, “Oh gosh `the patient` is really bad.” I don’t think the pilot `could be influenced` but just as a safety measure we do this. In my eyes, every time they call us they need us. Are some patients worse than others? Of course, but they all need to be flown. It’s definitely hard to say no, but it’s a necessity.
Safety is always first on our minds. It would be crazy for us to do anything reckless. We’re not serving the patients if we decide to take a risk that could be detrimental to both us and to them. Luckily, in 17 years I’ve never been involved in an incident or accident.
We always tell our crews, especially in the summertime: Drink plenty of water, always eat well, and get plenty of rest. It definitely gets hot. Now in the aircraft, we have awesome air-conditioning. It even spits out little pieces of ice at you, which is great. But when you get out of the aircraft and you’re on the scene, and the patient is being extracted `from a car` and it’s 97-something-degrees, sometimes over 100 degrees, and you’re wearing a MONEX `fire-retardant material` flight suit, boots, and a helmet, it gets pretty warm. There are times when you’re just pouring sweat and thinking, “This flight suit is so hot.”
We depend on local fire and EMS systems to help us land. We land on freeways, sides of roads, and parking lots. I’ll walk up to the scene and people will say, “Are you the pilot?” and I’ll say, “No, I’m the nurse.” A lot of times, they’re like, “Who is the pilot?”
We’ve recently changed aircraft and it’s pretty spacious. I guess having done it for 17 years I don’t even think about it anymore — that it’s cramped space. We have plenty of space to do everything in the aircraft, if we have to intubate, start an IV, or give medications. It’s really not a problem.
We average about three to four flights a shift. The most I’ve ever done in one shift is six flights. It’s busier on the weekends when people are traveling more — people are out of work, maybe partying. We also see an increase in flights during the holidays, especially spring break. You never know how busy you’re going to be with this job. There have been nights when I go all shift without doing a flight. Those are a lot more rare than when I first started.
I’ve only been on one scene call where we had to deliver a baby, a pair of twins. Unfortunately the mother waited a little too long. There wasn’t enough time to rush her to the hospital. We landed on their property. We’ve transported many in labor. If the delivery is imminent we won’t load and go. It’s better to deliver the infant in a more stable environment.
I don’t really talk much to my kids about the patients or how injured they were. But they say, “Hey, Dad, you got to be tired. You’ve been working all night.” They’re really good about letting me sleep during the day if I work nights, because they know I have to go back to work.
My wife worries — I’m sure she does. But a lot of times she won’t tell me. When I come home she’ll say, “How was your day?” especially when there have been storms. She sees how much I enjoy it and how I talk about it. She’s also a nurse. That’s another good thing because she understands the medical aspect of the job.
I was a helicopter mechanic in the Army. I couldn’t believe I could have the best of both worlds — I loved working on helicopters and here I was riding around in one as a nurse. I’m like, “This is just amazing.” I always tell people, “I love it just as much now as the day I started.” •