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iCON | Intranet for the College of Nursing
iCON | Intranet
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Lifelines: Critically injured and rural communities

A quiet day can change in an instant for flight nurse Renee Delau, BSN ’01, as she springs into action at the course sound of radio dispatch. Her team at LifeNet of Michigan, located in Saginaw, Mich. at Covenant HealthCare, have been waiting patiently in the air hangar to answer the call.

“We don’t know what we’re responding to until we get into the air,” she said. “If we’re headed to a crash scene response, the fire department sets up a landing zone for us. Depending on where we are, we’ll land on a field, the highway, a rural road or even a parking lot.”

Beyond the thrill of being in the sky, 13 years of flight nurse experience have sharpened Delau’s critical thinking skills as a nurse. The limited amount of time and medical personnel on an aircraft force her to be nimble and efficient. 

Typically, Delau and her team respond to accidents and hospital-to-hospital transfers. This requires taking a critical patient at an ill-equipped healthcare facility, often located in rural settings, to somewhere more stable. In either case, time is of the essence.

“Everything we do is time-sensitive. We deal with the sickest of the sick and most critical patients,” said Delau.

The cabin on a BK117 twin-engine helicopter is smaller than a hospital room, but both have the same capabilities. From infusion pumps and ventilators to heart monitors and intubation equipment, Delau can practice just as she would at the bedside, with an added layer of responsibility. Delau refers to it as, “A little, flying ICU.”

“When you’re up there, it’s just you and maybe another nurse or paramedic.” She adds “I like critical care transports because it gives me an extra layer of autonomy, which allows me to be a better and more knowledgeable nurse. It doesn’t allow you to get stuck in a rut.”

In addition to experience, Delau credits her comfort in high-stress critical transport situations to the extensive training she received. Flight nurse, medic and clinical base lead Michael Smale has been airborne for close to 20 years and is responsible for showing Delau the ropes.

“Anybody that we hire is a very intelligent and motivated individual,” said Smale. “One of the most important qualities that we look for is self-confidence. It’s not like being in the hospital where you have unlimited resources around you to tap into, it’s you and your partner.”

Teamwork remains a key part of ensuring positive outcomes for critical care transport patients. The collective effort and communication of fire departments, helicopter pilots, flight nurses, ground paramedics, flight paramedics and others are what allows each mission to be a success.

Delau also attributes her education at the MSU College of Nursing for giving her a solid foundation. Delau is a graduate of the college's RN-BSN program, which helps nurses with their associate's degrees earn bachelor's degrees.

“They [MSU College of Nursing] instill a great deal of confidence in their students. You can be whatever you want to be and take your nursing degree wherever you want it to go.” She continued, “It’s been 20 years and I still remember the encouragement and availability of instructors and faculty members when I needed them.”

With flight shifts coming in batches of two, 24-hour shifts each week, one might think there are slim odds for longevity in the field, but Delau feels quite the opposite. The new and unexpected that meets her each day on the job is what keeps her intrigued.

“I feel like I’ll keep doing this until I physically can’t get out of the aircraft! I mean, really, I don’t ever see myself not doing this type of role,” she said.