First Person Singular: Flight nurse Sheryl Titus


Sheryl Titus, 41, of Alexandria, is a flight nurse for Washington Hospital Center. (Logan Mock-Bunting/For The Washington Post)
June 3, 2011

Sheryl Titus, 41, Alexandria, Flight nurse, Washington Hospital Center

I’ve loved helicopters forever. When I was little and the helicopter would come on on “M*A*S*H,” my mother and father would yell, “Sheryl, the helicopter’s on,” and I’d come running down. I see the helicopter when I go to my base, and I kind of give it a little hug. It’s goofy, but I just love it so much.

What we do is pick people up at outlying hospitals and bring them to larger facilities. We move a lot of patients that are having active heart attacks or having a stroke. We can get someone who’s having an active heart attack to the catheterization lab to be cleaned out within an hour. When we get to these hospitals, you can see a look of relief on everybody’s face when we arrive. Even the doctor will move out of our way. The families are relieved; the patient, if they’re awake and with it, they’re always very relieved. They just know that here is hope, because hope was not available at that hospital.

One of the reasons why I love what I do so much is that I can give peace of mind, and that’s one of the biggest gifts we can give people. You have to have a certain confidence level; you have to have a sense of compassion, and at the same time, you have to come across as very capable. As soon as we put them on our monitor and get them out the door, they’re now fully our patient. We have a special phone on the aircraft so that we can call a doctor if we should have a problem en route. But the idea with any kind of critical care nursing is you want to try to anticipate the things that might happen before they happen. You should never get too comfortable with any of these patients, because something could go awry at any moment. When we take off, when we land, I cannot look at the patient; I have to have my eyes out, looking around for other aircraft. We have to know how the aircraft works, how the radio works, we have to know about flight physiology, weather, the height of the clouds.

Sometimes you just see fear on these patients’ faces. I see people who are CEOs of multimillion-dollar companies, four-star generals, mothers or fathers of 12 kids — people who’ve been tough for so long. And to see them in that vulnerable state — some of them don’t even want to show you, and you have to let them know, “Hey, it’s okay to take your guard down right now.” As long as they know you’re going to give them dignity and that what goes on between you and them stays between you and them.

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