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Grand Junction, Colo.,
11:38 AM

CareFlight goes to great heights to provide care

Public can meet flight crews at Grand Junction Air Show

The caregivers who make up CareFlight of the Rockies had high aspirations for a career from an early age. Sky-high, one might say.

CareFlight of the Rockies is western Colorado’s helicopter air ambulance serving the community since 1976. The 77 men and women who work for CareFlight of the Rockies are dedicated, passionate, and fun. Many are homegrown, having watched the helicopter in action as young boys and girls.

Tony Somogyi is one of CareFlight’s 17 pilots. He is a native of Palisade, a graduate of Palisade High School, and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army.

“As a kid, I used to see St. Mary's Air Life, that’s what it was called then, fly over all the time. I knew at a very young age that's what I wanted to do,” Somogyi said.

Flight nurse Thomas Feller’s love for flying was sparked as a teenager in Collbran volunteering for the ambulance service.

“I’d be working a scene and the helicopter would fly up to Collbran. And I thought, that is the neatest thing ever,” Feller said. Thirty-one years later it’s still his dream job. “I love getting in the helicopter or the airplane and flying around this beautiful state helping people. For me, it’s the ultimate. It’s the ultimate job and the ultimate in patient care. I've always loved aviation, and I've always loved medicine. It’s just the best combination.”

CareFlight of the Rockies is a joint venture with several hospitals around Colorado. The fleet includes two fixed wing aircraft and two helicopters. The helicopters are based in Rifle and Montrose, and the fixed wing aircrafts are dispatched from the Grand Junction Regional Airport. The air service covers a 250-mile area including Colorado, eastern Utah, and parts of New Mexico.

Each flight has a crew of three: the pilot, a flight nurse, and a paramedic. Ada Shilcox, a graduate of Fruita High School, joined CareFlight four years ago as a paramedic after serving 16 years with the Grand Junction Fire Department.

“I got the bug to fly when I was a teenager. We were up at the potholes on Glade Park, and someone got hurt. Glade Park Fire was first on the scene, and we all helped stabilize the patient. But when CareFlight came up over the hill it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen,” Shilcox said.

The paramedic and flight nurse work together as a critical care team. Their ability to provide patient care is more advanced than you would typically find in a ground ambulance.

“We are a flying ICU or a flying emergency department. We carry blood, we have cardiac monitoring, defibrillation, and pacing capabilities. In those small aircraft, we pack a powerful punch” Feller said.

With the treacherous terrain of Colorado and eastern Utah, CareFlight is dispatched to remote locations that traditional rescue crews are unable to access quickly. This provides critical, lifesaving care when time is crucial. It can mean the difference of life vs. death.  

“No two days are the same. When I wake up in the morning and I'm putting my uniform on, I know there's a good chance that I'm going to meet somebody that is in dire need,” Feller said.

CareFlight is called to serious motor vehicle accidents and backcountry rescues, but more frequently calls consist of transporting a patient who needs a higher level of care. As you might expect, some days aren’t nearly as busy as others.

“If we have enough downtime, a lot of times we’ll do crafts. Another flight nurse and I like to quilt together. They play Xbox and some of our pilots even like to knit,” Shilcox said.

Each admits flying is fun, but the biggest reward is seeing a patient they cared for comeback weeks or months later and is doing well.

“We don't usually get feedback on our patients, but when we do and it's a good-news story, that's probably the best feeling in the world,” Somogyi said.

“It’s the kids, they’re the ones that really get you. They come back and tell you you’re their hero. Which we never consider ourselves heroes,” Feller said.

If you would like to meet a member of the CareFlight of the Rockies team, they will be out at the Grand Junction Air Show on October 14-15. St. Mary's, now part of Intermountain Health, is a proud sponsor of the Grand Junction Air Show.