Children's National Medical Center prepares to take a helicopter to pick up a sick kid at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2012. On the left is Children's transport nurse Joy Avery.  (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The first time Stephanie Lyles flew in a helicopter, she thought she’d have a panic attack. It was so claustrophobic, crammed with medical equipment and medical personnel, a metal cocoon hurtling through the sky. Then she concentrated on the sound of the rotors, which thrummed like a boat. It soothed her.

“I can do this,” she thought. “I’m going to be a transport nurse.”

Early on a recent Wednesday morning, Stephanie is one of two transport nurses on duty in the neonatal intensive care unit — the NICU — at Children’s National Medical Center. The other, Joy Avery, has been at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring for more than an hour, getting ready to bring a newborn back.

Before she boarded the chopper, I’d asked Joy what it’s like when she meets the parents for the first time.

“I like interacting with the parents,” she told me. “I don’t like telling them terrible news, or having to meet them under those circumstances, but I think that’s part of being a nurse. . . . Even if you’re scared, you have to go in knowing what you’re going to do. You’re taking their child from them. You have to instill in them a trust, immediately. So you just do it.”

At 1:02 a.m., a listing on the computer screen in the transport office turns green, meaning SkyBear has taken off. Joy and the baby are on their way back.

Within minutes, the copter is touching town on the roof of Children’s. The isolette is taken off and wheeled onto an elevator. The baby’s destination is a room in the cardiac intensive care unit on the third floor. The mother’s last name — Wells — is already up on the wall outside.

Soon there are eight people in the room ministering to the sick baby. Joy reads off various levels: glucose, sodium, lactate. . . .

Some of the numbers are met with moans, others with mild cheers. This is the baby’s first report card. He has gotten no worse, but he is not much better.

Joy bends down, “Are you ready to go, baby? Get the heck out of this box?”

At 1:25 a.m., Joy and respiratory therapist Karen Brant carefully lift him from the isolette and put him on the bed in the room. His transport is done.

Joy goes back to the transport nurses’ office in the NICU on the sixth floor. The first three hours of her shift were spent waiting. The last two hours were spent in intense activity.

“Buildings can be crashing down around me and I’m focusing on my patient,” she says. Then: “This is the time I stare at the wall for 10 minutes.”

Joy takes off her flight suit and eases herself into a chair.

Meanwhile, another call has come in. A 16-day-old infant has been brought to United Medical Center in Southeast after turning blue at home. Stephanie gets up to go get him, to bring him to Children’s, to hopefully save his life.

Family and child reunion

And what of Baby Wells? He is actually Caleb Jonathan Lazar, the first child of Esther Wells and her husband, Maraldo Lazar, of Montgomery Village.

Caleb turned out not to have a cardiac problem. Doctors determined that while in his mother’s womb he aspirated meconium, a baby’s first bowel movement. That gave him pulmonary hypertension, said Soraya DiBlassio, the doctor on call the night he was flown in from Holy Cross.

Caleb was moved to the Children’s NICU. He was kept sedated and intubated and given blood pressure medication. Machines helped him breathe, giving his lungs time to rest. After two weeks, the breathing tube was removed. His next step is to learn to breast feed.

“He’s well on his way to being a regular newborn,” his mom said Tuesday as Caleb napped in his father’s lap.

Doctors say they think he will go home on Christmas Day.

Helping Children’s

There are just two weeks left in this year’s Washington Post fundraising campaign for Children’s National Medical Center. If you are planning on giving — and taking a charitable deduction on your 2012 taxes — now is the time to donate. We’ve raised $124,124.07. Our goal is $400,000. Remember that all the money goes to the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, which pays the medical bills of underinsured kids.

You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

Mistaken identity

The caption in Wednesday’s paper misidentified the two Children’s transport nurses. Joy was on the left and Stephanie on the right.

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