As her emergency medical helicopter began to plummet after losing power while lifting off with a patient from an Olympia hospital, flight nurse Krista Haugen couldn’t help thinking “not again.”
One month earlier, three of her colleagues at Airlift Northwest were killed when their helicopter crashed into Puget Sound near Edmonds.
With their memorial services fresh in her mind, Haugen was left to consider her own mortality as she fell from the sky.
The Oct. 28, 2005, crash from 70 feet above Providence St. Peter Hospital totaled the aircraft, but everyone made it out alive.
For Haugen, however, the effects would linger in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder and would eventually lead to the end of her career as a flight nurse.
“It proved to be pretty overwhelming,” the 44-year-old Gig Harbor resident recalled last week. “It’s not what the aircraft looks like post-accident; it’s what happens in your mind.”
Though PTSD cut short one part of her professional life, it led to the start of another: She helped form the Survivors Network for Air and Surface Medical Transport.
Last month, she was honored with the University of Washington Tacoma’s Distinguished Alumni Award for her work as co-founder and chairwoman of the Survivors Network. She earned a master’s degree in nursing from UWT in 1998.
“Someone needed to take the lead,” said Jonathan Godfrey, another air ambulance crash survivor who also co-founded the Survivors Network. “She has done a fantastic job.”
It started about a year after her accident, when Haugen heard of another air ambulance crash, this time in her home state of Montana. Knowing what the survivors might be going through, she reached out in support.
She heard back a few weeks later from flight nurse Megan Hamilton, who was experiencing the same symptoms as Haugen. A year after that, Hamilton reached out to a crash survivor from Kansas, Teresa Pearson. She, too, was feeling symptoms of PTSD.
The three survivors began to talk.
“Even though all of our accidents are very different, our experiences were very similar,” Haugen said. “It was validating for me because it was not just me feeling this way after a crash.”
They discussed the lack of resources for the nearly 600 air medical crash survivors and decided something had to be done to fill the void. The three connected with Godfrey and formed the Survivors Network in 2009.
The network has two main goals: resiliency and health of survivors, and prevention of accidents.
The group has done several studies on the effects a crash has on survivors. It also has looked closely at military studies on PTSD. The goal of network members is to determine how to provide effective short- and long-term care to medical providers who suddenly find themselves feeling powerless, like a helicopter spiraling out of control.
“We have to care for our caregivers (they) find it hard to ask for help, because they are the helpers,” said Haugen, who has learned to manage her PTSD over the years. “If you can help people deal with stress early on, they can return to a life of purpose.”
Godfrey said personal vigilance of crew members is essential to accident prevention, saying even the smallest mistake can result in a crash. The Survivors Network advocates this message by sharing survival stories with the air-ambulance industry.
“You can preach that (safety) from an employer’s level, but it doesn’t resonate like hearing from someone who has been there,” Godfrey said.
Haugen’s traumatic accident happened on a Friday night. The flight took off from the helipad on the roof of Providence St. Peter around 11:30 p.m. with a pilot, two nurses and a patient on board, en route to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
After losing power, the 6,800-pound helicopter clipped the hospital building on the way down and wound up in a small dirt flower bed area – its windshield and tail broken and all four blades gone. One person on board had minor injuries.
While the Survivors Network deals with the dangerous side of air medicine, Haugen is quick to point out the necessity of the industry, as reflected by its growth.
From 2002 to 2008, the number of emergency medical helicopters doubled from 400 to 800, according to the Association of Air Medical Services. The association attributes the rapid growth to a declining number of emergency centers in community hospitals, structural changes in rural health care centers and an aging population.
The association estimates nearly 400,000 medical helicopter transports and an additional 150,000 fixed-wing transports occur in the U.S. every year.
The industry counted at least 128 fatalities in air ambulance helicopter or fixed-wing airplane accidents in the 10-year period that ended with Haugen’s crash.
Airlift Northwest has helicopters based in Olympia, Seattle, Arlington and Bellingham. Until 2007, it had a base in Puyallup. Its teams take pride in arriving at emergencies within minutes at sites throughout Western Washington.
“Air medicine, especially in a state like Washington, is a vital link,” Haugen said. “If we have injuries that are time-sensitive, air medicine is often their only chance of survival.”
She now works part time as an emergency room nurse at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Enumclaw. She looks back fondly on her time as a flight nurse.
“I miss it with all of my heart,” Haugen said. “The people in this industry have tremendous passion; it becomes a part of you.”zach.smith@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8670