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County residents find dream jobs serving others on iconic air ambulance
BY RUSSELL TURNER and ANNETTE HARVISON
Rescue 7 is a familiar icon for most Greene County residents. An air ambulance with that name has been serving Greene County and South Mississippi for nearly 50 years and represents the most advanced emergency medical response available in our area.
But to four Greene County residents, Rescue 7 also represents the opportunity to work at the top of their field, a dream job in fact, and right here at home.
Codie Harvison, Michael McDonald, Ariel Moreno and Johnan Taylor Hand are employed with AirMedCare Network and work as emergency medical responders in the company’s Region 8. They are part of a 32-person team that operates air ambulances out of the company’s locations in Hattiesburg, McComb, Magee and Gulfport. From time-to-time Hand, who once flew in Rescue 7 herself, puts the helicopter in the hands of a completely Greene County team. That was the case last Friday when they flew into Leakesville to check in with the trauma team at the Greene County Hospital Emergency Room.
When Harvison piloted Rescue 7 softly onto the landing pad at the hospital, Moreno was on board as the crew’s paramedic and McDonald was serving as flight nurse. Hand, who was already on site speaking with hospital employees, watched like a proud parent as her team climbed out of the aircraft.
It was the second non-emergency visit to Greene County in recent weeks and the camaraderie among the group was obvious and a bit infectious. The four friends and coworkers joked and laughed with each other and Greene County Emergency Management Director Trent Robertson, who had stopped by to visit. It was a rare moment of playfulness in a career field that is most often as serious as the life-and-death scenarios they routinely fly into.
“These guys are the Special Forces of emergency medical services,” Robertson said. “I think it’s an honor to have these men and women from Greene County who have chosen a career of public service.”
“There are many other careers that might be more financially rewarding, or would certainly be safer, but I can assure you, you would be hard-pressed to find a more noble profession than air rescue.”
Moreno and McDonald each said they feel blessed to do what they do and that serving on Rescue 7 represented a dream job that had been their goal since first deciding to pursue careers in emergency medicine. Each took different routes to arrive in their current positions, but agreed that Hand played a big role in shaping their career paths.
“This was my goal,” McDonald said. “When I started as a paramedic, my goal was to be a flight medic.”
“I grew up watching Johnan do what she did,” Moreno added. “I wanted to be just like her.”
Of course, being a member of the Rescue 7 crew doesn’t happen overnight. It takes training, focus and experience.
McDonald went to paramedic school after graduating from GCHS in 2004. A few years into his paramedic career, he went back to school to earn a degree in nursing. He worked in a variety of settings, including serving as an ICU nurse, before starting his career in emergency air services four years ago. Moreno graduated from GCHS in 2010, and like McDonald, immediately went after her certification as a paramedic. She knew her goal was to become a flight paramedic and soon parlayed her education and experience to earn her certification as a critical care paramedic. When a position became available with Rescue 7 last year, she applied and got the job.
Hand’s career path was different and she admittedly ended up on Rescue 7 “by chance”. The daughter of Pam and Graham Taylor of Leakesville graduated from GCHS in 1990 and soon afterward began her career as a paramedic. A positon became available as a flight paramedic in 1998, when AAA Ambulance was operating the aircraft through an arrangement with the Southeast Mississippi Air Ambulance District (SEMAAD). After several years in that role, she returned to school and in 2006 earned her nursing degree and went back to working full time at Forrest General Hospital. She said she had been working at the hospital for about two years when Lifeflight opened a new flight base in Hattiesburg. Although she no longer rides the helicopter, Hand is still a large part of the program, serving as AirMed’s Program Manager.
“When I first flew (with Rescue 7) there was just a paramedic and a pilot on the crew,” Hand said. “Things have changed, but I love what I do.”
Hand said she has loved her career and has always felt blessed to have roots in Greene County. She says it is a blessing to be able to serve her community and that she is proud that McDonald and Moreno claim her as a mentor. As for current students thinking about where they want to be in 10 years, she lifts McDonald and Moreno as role models.
“Just stick to it and you will get there,” Hand said, encouraging young people to work hard to chase their dreams. “I just want them to know they can do anything they want to do.”
“Just keep working at it.”
Harvison graduated from GCHS in 2008. The Neely native and grandson of J.R. and Louvenia Harvison joined the Army National Guard after high school and was deployed to the Middle East in 2012. He said after returning from that deployment he began looking for a different career path.
“I wanted something new,” Harvison said. “The Army had a pilot shortage and I applied and became a Black Hawk pilot.”
Harvison continues to serve his country as member of the National Guard. After returning from his last deployment, he began working in Jackson. By this time, Harvison had married and he and his wife Caitlin Churchwell Harvison were growing their family. Predictably, the distance from home was taking a toll.
“My wife said come home,” Harvison said. “Ariel had messaged me a few months before and told me about the pilot’s position with Rescue 7.”
“I flew a Black Hawk down to Hattiesburg one day, and I applied that day. Flying for the military is great, but most of what we do is training. With Rescue 7, I fly with a purpose. Every time they call us, somebody’s life is on the line.”
When the calls come from home
Rescue 7 is an important part of our local emergency services and has been since the formation of SEMAAD in 1971. When local residents see the blue and yellow markings of the helicopter or hear the familiar sounds of the chopper blades cutting through the air, they know someone in one of our communities is in trouble.
Those sights and sounds often prompt residents to begin calling family and friends checking to see if the helicopter is en route for family, friends or coworkers. Thoughts go out to the person waiting on the aircraft and their family, but most probably don’t put too much thought into the emergency personnel manning the aircraft.
While they never hope to have a busy day, each member of the air ambulance knows that is a real possibility every time they go to work. They stay prepared for an emergency and say their training prepares them for the traumatic scenes they often encounter. Still, flying a mission into Greene County does stir emotions.
“I used to panic when we had a call to come to Greene County,” Hand said. “I always wanted to know where my family members were.”
The crew said they have coping mechanisms for working any emergency, especially in their hometown. They said they try not to think about their patients’ identities as it helps them stay level headed and focused on what they are doing. Still, the crew must stay mentally prepared for the possibility of knowing who they are transporting.
Having a good working dynamic helps. They get along well when they are on the same shift and have a good time about reminiscing about “the old days in Greene County”.
“We know we are walking into a bad situation,” Moreno said. “I think knowing each other so well helps out.”
Although their jobs are serious ones, the crew can have fun during down time and while training. During Friday’s visit, a particular training exercise gave McDonald’s cohorts an opportunity to poke fun.
“I was learning to use night vision goggles,” McDonald said. “It was hard to get used to them and I got sick.”
Adapting to new technologies is just one of the challenges of the job. But, it also has physical challenges as the helicopter and its crew typically makes 30-45 flights per month.
Because of this, the medical crew doesn’t have a typical Monday through Friday schedule. Rescue 7 is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but paramedics like McDonald and Moreno are scheduled to fly only a few days per week. When not part of the Rescue 7 crew, McDonald and Moreno each work part-time on ground ambulances. McDonald also takes shifts as a PRN at area hospitals.
When asked how long they think they can continue to work on Rescue 7, the group laughed and turned to Hand.
“Ask her,” Moreno said pointing Hand. “We’re just getting started.”
Hand said she could still fly if needed and that people in their 60s can still work on the chopper. However, the physical ability for the job doesn’t last that long for everyone. The motions of the helicopter, turbulance and constantly changing altitude can be taxing. And, the heat can take a toll on the body too.
“The air conditioner is not as good as everybody thinks,” Harvison said to the amusement, but agreement of the others.
Moreno, who grew up in Leakesville and is the daughter of Edgar and Tanya Moreno, said she loves her work and plans to serve as a flight paramedic as long as possible. McDonald, who is the son of Bobby and Jean McDonald of the Johnathon Community, feels the same way.
The elder McDonalds were at the hospital to see the helicopter land and support their son. Jean said she is proud of him and what he does. She said she wouldn’t have thought this would be the career path he chose, but he is the best at what he does.
“He came home and sat between me and Bobby one day,” Jean said. “He said I know what I want to do. I want to be a flight nurse, and he kept on working until he got there.”
“We are so proud of him. We have received so many cards and letters from people he has helped. He has worked very hard to get where he is.”