Lifeguards of the Sky

Have you ever held or transported a “cooler” containing a human heart – a heart that was soon to be transplanted into a recipient?

As I write this in late July, it is peak beach and lifeguard season here in Southern California. But this is about Lifeguards of the Sky.

Part of my message at Robert Henry Fitness is that you can be healthy and fit at any age, regardless of your occupation. You don’t have to be a fitness professional. Look at me: I’ve been either a pilot or an attorney – or have worked concurrently as both – for most of my work life. Health transcends what we do for a living.

At Robert Henry Fitness, my interest in medicine is largely limited to what might be called preventive medicine. This post draws upon some of my work as a pilot. Specifically, it is about my experience in that facet of aviation which involves transporting donated organs (and usually accompanying medical/surgical teams, well). To that extent, it is about the intersection of aviation and medicine, and not just the preventive medicine that is my usual focus.

“Lifeguard” is a radio call sign and flight plan classification used for air ambulance and medical emergency flights, including the transportation of urgently needed medical materials or vital organs. Air Traffic Control will provide expeditious handling of Lifeguards to the extent possible. (August 2013: The call sign “Medevac” is now more commonly used for these flights. However, “Lifeguard” was the preferred call sign for many years.)

My first Lifeguard flight was a short flight to San Diego late at night. As we made our approach into San Diego, we were instructed to follow another jet to the airport. As it turned out, that other jet was also a Lifeguard, had flown in from another part of the country, and was there for a different organ from the same donor. We waited at the airport throughout the remainder of the night, before leaving shortly after sunrise. It was my first Lifeguard. I asked about the circumstances. I was told the donor was a 19 year old girl. We transported her heart to Los Angeles. After that first Lifeguard – and I did probably dozens more – I never asked about the circumstances or about the donor, but sometimes I would hear, anyway, from one source or another.

Most of the time, we would transport the heart. Other times, other organs. Most of the time, a medical team accompanied us. (I’ve also flown air ambulance, with a live patient on board who was being attended to by medical personnel, but those have been a small minority of the medical/Lifeguard flights that I’ve flown.)

On any given day or night, there are pilots flying Lifeguard flights and transporting vital human organs from donor location to recipient location. As you might infer, these kinds of flights are unscheduled, urgent, and require a dedicated response from all concerned. When I have had flying jobs which did not involve Lifeguard flights and which were more scheduled and offered more amenities, I would still reflect on the fact that other pilots were up there flying Lifeguard.

Unfortunately and most disappointingly, this facet of aviation was maligned – or at least very poorly represented – in one of the last episodes of the long-running TV show ER, a show which could have used its platform to portray organ donor Lifeguard flights in a more positive and more accurate light. In that episode of ER, entitled “Old Times”, which included the return of Julianna Margulies and George Clooney, the jet which was supposed to be waiting for the returning medical team and organ(s), had instead departed. The medical team – portrayed by series regulars – then received sideways looks from a customer service representative at a private jet terminal when the team told the rep that a human heart was in the cooler. The team was then placed on a charter flight which was already occupied, as I recall, by a rock band. This was a very poor representation of what really transpires with Lifeguard organ flights. (Reportedly, this episode was written by John Wells, one of the show’s executive producers.) These flights are usually flown under contract and are an ongoing service between the charter company and the medical facility. A flight crew would not abandon a medical team. Indeed, a member of the medical team calls ahead to one of the pilots via cell phone to let the flight crew know that the team will be arriving back at the plane in, say, 30 minutes. The flight crew then makes any necessary preparations for a smooth and timely departure. These flights are everyday occurrences all over the U.S.

The TV show Baywatch depicted beach lifeguards; perhaps not accurately in many ways (they don’t all have abs, for one thing – we can address that here at Robert Henry Fitness), but at least in a positive light when it came to the role that lifeguards fill when on duty (portrayed as capable and vigilant rescuers, responders, etc.)

Lifeguard pilots play an important role, too, and do so with professionalism and dedication, on very short notice,  often for limited tangible reward.

The next time you see a lifeguard station at the beach, pool, or lake, remember Lifeguards of the Sky. They are called into action 24/7, year-round.


Check out my eBook, Age Re-Defined: Take Control of Your Health, How You Feel, And How You Look – Even In Your Forties & Fifties

For an aviation video I shot, check out this link: