The Teen Who Didn't Make It — And The Nurses He Moved Along The Way
For more than a decade, Wilson Matthews and Jeanne Yeatman worked together as flight nurses on emergency response helicopters. Over that time, they cared for countless patients as they were being transported to hospitals. One flight in particular, though, remains impossible for them to forget.
They had been trying to save a 13-year-old named Stephen. He'd been riding his bicycle over a dirt jump when he fell and suffered severe head trauma.
By the time he made it into the helicopter, nothing that Wilson or Jeanne tried was doing any good.
"Even in a bad situation something's usually working a little bit, but nothing was working," Wilson says. "So we just started making up stuff to do because neither one of us wanted to stop."
Stephen went into cardiac arrest during the flight. He died before he could make it to the hospital.
"You know," Jeanne says, "until you've really fought for somebody and then seen them die right before your eyes — you can't explain it."
Months later, Stephen's mom reached out to the two of them.
"I remember being terrified, not knowing if she was going to be angry that we didn't save him," Wilson says. "But she wanted to touch us and hug us because we were the last people to see her boy alive.
"That was 14 years ago," he adds. "So his mom has been without him as long as she was with him."
Still, for as long as they've done the job, the relationships they share with their patients and their families continue to give them pause.
"You know," Jeanne observes, "I think we're invited into people's lives at their very worst moments. People don't plan for us. People don't expect to see us. And meeting her, I know, forever changed my life because, I mean, it is the reason we do this."
"The flight with Stephen still is with me every day," Wilson says. "I mean, his picture is in my locker so every time I take my helmet out to go on a flight he's looking at me. And I know you have the same picture in your office."
Beside Wilson's helmet, behind Jeanne in her office, Stephen remains a daily part of their lives. It's not just a rote reminder of procedure, or even of responsibility.
"It reminds me that we're not just taking care of the patient," Wilson says. "We're taking care of somebody's family."
It's been nearly a decade and a half since that flight, but Wilson still feels its effects, even now.
"It's easy to get caught up in all that we have to do to be able to do what we do everyday. But I'm more of a human flight nurse than I was. I see things a little differently now."
Produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.
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