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When lifesaving COVID-19 care arrives by helicopter

Regional and rural hospitals can be ill-equipped to handle serious coronavirus cases -- so additional care comes to the patient. Jennifer Adamski is a critical care nurse practitioner with the Cleveland Clinic, an Ohio-based hospital system that dispatches her far and wide to retrieve patients in need, often via helicopter. She joins William Brangham to discuss how COVID-19 has changed her job.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been reporting, America's regional and rural hospitals are sometimes overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with the influx of more serious coronavirus cases.

    William Brangham recently spoke with a woman who's part of a unique medical team that comes to help these hospitals and their patients.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    At the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, which is a huge hospital system that serves many different counties and states, sometimes, when critically ill patients need help, Jennifer Adamski comes and gets them via helicopter.

    Adamski is a critical care nurse practitioner with the Cleveland Clinic. And she joins me now.

    Jennifer, thank you very, very much for being here.

    Could you just give us a sense now, how many, would you estimate, of your patients currently are coronavirus patients?

  • Jennifer Adamski:

    I would say what I'm seeing in my role is maybe an upwards of 50 percent to 60 percent over the last month or two or so.

    We're seeing very ill COVID-positive or suspected COVID-positive patients, most requiring mechanical ventilation and/or high levels of oxygen therapy and support.

    You know, a little bit about what I do, before COVID, we would fly in and safely and quickly get the patient out and have really minimal interaction with the staff, and — or develop that deep connection

    But in that…

  • William Brangham:

    This is the staff at the local hospital?

  • Jennifer Adamski:

    Exactly.

    But now what we're seeing is, when we arrive at these facilities across the state or even across the country, whether it be a freestanding E.R., a small community hospital, a big level one tertiary center ICU, we instantly become part of their COVID team.

    You know, each facility has really determined a process that works best for them in this difficult time. And we instantly are assimilated into that fold.

    And what I mean by that is, we may take more thoughtful and deliberate time to interact with the nurses and the support staff, whether it be taking part in their donning and doffing buddy systems, helping them with their I.V.s outside the room, or even making sure that we FaceTime families before we go, because they may not see their loved one for a while, or at all, actually.

    And for me, personally, I just really make sure that I take the time to let the staff know that they're appreciated.

    There is such a sense of pride from the nurses at the bedside that I have never experienced in my 20-plus years as a nurse.

  • William Brangham:

    So, once you have got a patient in the helicopter and you're traveling back to the Cleveland Clinic, you're doing a lot more than just transporting, right? You're doing full medical interventions up there.

  • Jennifer Adamski:

    Oh, absolutely.

    It's funny. I teach my students that critical care is a type of care and not a place. And this is a perfect example of that. This is critical care in the air, with a few less resources, few less hands than what you would have at the bedside in your ICU.

  • William Brangham:

    From your vantage point in Ohio — I know you're traveling around the country, but you're based in Ohio — have people there been listening to those stay-at-home orders for the most part?

  • Jennifer Adamski:

    I feel like that they have.

    And if I could share just a quick story, I was driving home last week after a long shift of flying very sick patients, and I came upon this multi-car accident that appeared to have just happened. And there was a body laying lifeless in the middle of the freeway.

    And, immediately, I stopped, and I was the first one on the scene to assess the patient. And he appeared to have been thrown from the car and had a bad head injury and bleeding and very shallow respirations.

    And over the next two minutes, four critical care nurses stopped, one right after another, each in their scrubs, all from different area hospitals, all different specialties.

    Thankfully, I had some extra gloves and masks in the car that I distributed. I held C-spine, and we rolled the patient in unison, like a dance.

  • William Brangham:

    These were all workers from different hospitals all coming off their shifts too?

  • Jennifer Adamski:

    Absolutely.

    We assessed airway and pulse. One of the nurses had this great idea to use one of her child's diapers to stop the copious head bleed. And we waited in the middle of what was always a busy highway before COVID, and now only had essential workers on the road, and how lucky for that patient.

    It was very surreal. And I thought about it later on that night why it touched me so much. And it wasn't that my fellow warriors in arms stopped to help, because that's what we do. It was the sense of ownership and competence that each one of these nurses exuded and the need to keep our communities safe at all costs, even outside the four walls of a hospital.

    So, despite this visceral fear that I have each day now putting on my flight suit, there is such truth in the quote that the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

    And, honestly, I can't remember a time when I was more proud to call myself a nurse.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a beautiful definition of the term essential workers right there.

    Jennifer Adamski of the Cleveland Clinic, thank you so much for your time, and thank you for your work.

  • Jennifer Adamski:

    Thank you so much. And stay well.

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