Allegheny Health Network has recorded tens of thousands of compelling stories about patients whose lives have been saved by LifeFlight. Every year, we highlight several personal patient experiences in a LifeFlight calendar and on the pages below. These stories illustrate why we exist — to swiftly respond with the highest levels of care when patients need us most. Hospitals and EMS agencies, our partners on every mission, are critical to our success. We are thankful for the trust that they place in us.
Please read about our patients’ remarkable journeys to survive and return to the joys of everyday life.
You can also read about our pilots, flight nurses, communications specialists and aviation technicians. Despite different lengths of service with LifeFlight, their experience is impressive and we are thankful for them and their colleagues.
David Kasprzyk — Keeping a Heart Attack Victim Alive
David Kasprzyk felt sluggish and not quite right on June 1, 2014, so he took a hot shower before turning in to bed, hoping it would help. Instead, his chest began to pound, prompting his wife, Shannon, to rush him to Allegheny Valley Hospital, not far from their West Deer Township home.
David was surprised when the emergency department nurse fixed her eyes on the heart monitor and turned to the ER doc, exclaiming, “Did you see that?!” She quickly exited the room, only to soon reappear and declare, “It’s okay. LifeFlight’s on its way.”
David was having a heart attack, diagnosed as an ST elevated MI, a heart attack with a particular EKG heart-tracing pattern. He had no history of cardiac problems, but at age six, he had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a significant predictor of heart disease.
LifeFlight crew members arrived and set up a nitroglycerine drip, securing David onto a stretcher for the short flight to West Penn Hospital.
David chatted with the flight nurse about never thinking his first ride in a helicopter would be on LifeFlight. The nurse smiled and calmly assured him, "We hear that a lot."
"I'm so very grateful for the LifeFlight team. They were so very professional and compassionate,” David said. “Everyone who took care of me was kind and understanding. Those people are made of some special substance."
At West Penn, David was wheeled into the cardiac cath lab, where doctors inserted an intra-aortic balloon pump to lessen the pressure to his heart. He was transferred to Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) for the next few days, where further testing confirmed significant damage to the heart muscle.
David met with a Heart Failure Team, and later was released home with a LifeVest™ wearable defibrillator to monitor his heart and warn him of irregularities. After one week, its alarm sounded repeatedly, indicating an irregular heartbeat. Doctors decided to insert an internal cardiac defibrillator (ICD) that could shock David’s heart into a normal rhythm if needed. Soon after, he was also placed on the list for a heart transplant.
In early 2015, the ICD indicated a rapid, irregular heartbeat, or ventricular tachycardia (VTAC) episode, and delivered a shock to David’s heart. He was admitted to the intensive care unit at AGH for reevaluation. Four months later his heart started getting worse, and a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) was inserted in David’s heart to help pump his blood until a donor heart could be found.
Unfortunately, the insertion of the LVAD triggered VTAC episodes so frequently that his doctors decided to sedate him in an effort to calm his heart and prevent the VTAC episodes.
After three days of sedation, now 11 months after the initial attack, David woke up with a new heart. He is gradually returning to a more normal way of life, enjoying time with his wife and three daughters. "Every day, it gets a little better. It is a process," he said.
Cody Swager — A Bike Ride Turns Dangerous
Cody Swager, 22, was living in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, and enjoying an evening motorcycle ride in Rural Valley, Armstrong County, on April 17, 2016, when two deer darted across the road. “I laid the bike down and ended up face down in a ditch,” said Cody. That was the last thing he would remember for two months.
A trucker was the first to find him, unconscious and bleeding from his head and face, and he called for help. Citizens Ambulance soon arrived on the scene, having already alerted LifeFlight. The paramedics gave Cody oxygen, suctioned his airway, and started him on IV fluids. LifeFlight arrived within eight minutes and administered paralytics to immobilize Cody for intubation before beginning the 15-minute flight to Forbes Hospital.
Emergency medical teams at the Forbes Level II Trauma Center discovered that Cody had traumatic brain injuries, a fractured skull with a subarachnoid hemorrhage, an intravascular hemorrhage, and a temporal bone fracture on his right side. Multiple orthopedic injuries included a broken rib, broken collarbone, and dislocated jaw.
Cody was admitted to the intensive care unit and placed into a medically induced coma to allow his brain to heal. He spent three weeks in a coma at Forbes and was then transferred to LifeCare Hospital at Allegheny Valley Hospital for two weeks, waking up on May 9.
"I didn't remember a thing," he said. "I called my girlfriend and asked her what I was doing in the hospital. I'm glad I don't remember the beginning."
Cody spent May 24 to July 1 in a rehabilitation hospital, gaining strength and abilities. "I'm doing great," he said in November, adding that he is still undergoing therapy for one hand, which is still shaky.
For a time, his memory was profoundly affected by the brain injury. "It used to be so bad, but it's now fine, though I'm not quite back all the way," he said.
Cody works as a machinist for computer numeric-controlled (CNC) equipment, a job he hopes to get back to with his doctor’s permission after his next medical appointment in January 2017.
He also hopes to be riding his motorcycle again in the spring, this time, with a helmet, which he wasn't wearing at the time of the accident. "Now, I'll always wear one. Now I know why everyone should," he said.
Naomi Whitbeck — A Tiny Miracle
Kait and Tim Whitbeck of Pleasant Hills were expecting their third child in late October 2016, but Kait went into labor 12 weeks early on Aug. 4. At Jefferson Hospital, Erica Smith, MD, performed an emergency C-section to deliver Naomi, who weighed just 2 pounds, 12 ounces. She had an infection and was in respiratory and cardiac distress. The early delivery may have saved her life.
"I was awake to see her and I remember meeting the nurse who would be on the helicopter," her mother Kait said. "It was very scary but we were also at peace. Everyone was very kind and took care of us so well. God was with us through the people helping us."
A neonatal nurse and respiratory therapist from West Penn Hospital's Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) cared for the baby with assistance from a LifeFlight nurse. Naomi was transported on a ventilator and in an Isolette® incubator to maintain her body temperature for the seven-minute flight to West Penn Hospital.
Doctors treated Naomi for many complicated medical issues, and the hospital became the family’s second home. Kait visited every day, and Tim and their other children, Lucas, 4, and Hannah, 2, came as frequently as they could.
"She was there for a long time. My son still thinks of the hospital as a fun place to go," Kait said.
After eight weeks in the NICU and two weeks in the pediatric unit, Naomi is now living at home. "She is doing amazingly well now, and we’re all enjoying being a family of five," said Kait.
The calendar photo of the Whitbeck family was taken two weeks after Naomi was discharged to home, which was just after the original due date.
Natiana Caldwell — An Accident Victim Survives
Natiana Caldwell, 24, was riding in the backseat of an SUV on March 29, 2015, when the driver crashed into and sheared off a telephone pole in Harrison Township, Allegheny County.
Teams from Citizens Hose Ambulance Service, Eureka Community Ambulance Service, and Citizens Hose Fire/Rescue arrived quickly. Natiana was the most seriously injured, thrown partially out the window, bleeding and unconscious.
Recognizing that her injuries were critical, the EMS crews immediately requested LifeFlight. They extricated her from the vehicle while immobilizing her spine, started IVs, and transported her to the helipad at Allegheny Valley Hospital. There, the crew from LifeFlight and City Hose worked together to sedate her and secure her airway for the nine-minute flight to Allegheny General Hospital (AGH).
At AGH, she received a ventriculostomy to help lower the intracranial pressure from brain swelling caused by her traumatic brain injury, which included subarachnoid, subdural, and intraventricular hemorrhages. In addition, nine of her 12 thoracic vertebrae were fractured, and she had fractures to her ribs, face, and neck.
"Considering how bad the accident was, she's come a long way. They weren't expecting her to live," recalled her father, Cory Caldwell. "She's doing a lot better than anyone expected her to."
After two weeks at AGH, Natiana was moved to a skilled nursing facility, Consulate Health Care of Cheswick. She is still living there, receiving compassionate care and therapy as she learns to walk and talk again.
For now, Natiana must use a wheelchair and is having additional surgery to reduce the tremors in her hands and arms that make it hard to feed herself. "Her speech is slow, very different from how she was before the accident, when she spoke so beautifully," said Cory.
As a milestone in her recovery, Natiana was able to celebrate her daughter's third birthday, decorating her room with balloons. "She still has a lot of rehabilitation to go, not 100 percent yet, but every day is progress," said Cory. "The important thing is that she is alive and getting better."
Richard Peterson – Grateful for Life-Saving Actions
Richard Peterson knew he was scheduled for treatment of his irregular heartbeat in the catheter lab of a local hospital on April 16, 2016. What the 46-year-old husband from Greensburg didn’t know was that he would suffer a heart attack during the ablation procedure and slip into a coma for the next 10 days.
Although Richard received emergent cardiac stenting after the heart attack, his condition continued to decline. He had more than 10 cardiac arrests and received CPR for more than 45 minutes. Richard was placed on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to pump oxygen into his blood, and he was also placed on the state-of-the-art, tiny catheter-based Impella heart pump.
LifeFlight was called to transport Richard to the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH). While on route, the flight nurses and a perfusionist administered medications and blood products, and placed Richard on a ventilator. A perfusionist is added to LifeFlight’s crew when a patient needs this extra care, usually on neo-natal flights as well. The perfusionist focuses on managing the ECMO and Impella devices, helping to cause positive outcomes for these very complex patient cases.
When Richard regained consciousness on April 21, he didn't recall what had happened. Doctors tested their patient's memory, asking if he was aware of the day, the year, or where he was.
"I didn't know what was going on," Richard said. "I was so confused." Doctors told Richard his chance of survival in his condition had been only 1 percent. He spent the next three weeks in AGH undergoing rehab and learning to walk again.
Richard believes he is "about 50 percent now," and has returned to light duty in his career as an electronic technician.
His heart still beats out of rhythm and more treatment will be needed, yet Richard is not discouraged that there is a lot of work ahead. "My immediate goal is to get as strong as possible before the next procedure," he said. He looks forward to the future and being able to safely enjoy his favorite activities, like golf, again sometime next year.
Richard credits the expert medical professionals at LifeFlight and at AGH for his being here to enjoy the future with his wife, Opal, and children Richard III, Ruby, and Jade.
"I'm so very grateful for the life-saving actions of the LifeFlight crew, and to all of the medical team," he said. "They were just wonderful. All of them."
Leslie Claus — Transported for Critical Surgery
On the morning of May 19, 2015, Leslie Claus was alone exercising in her Hampton Township home, when she suddenly felt a painful “pop” in her chest. She drove herself to an urgent care center nearby, where she was quickly examined and referred to a hospital emergency department.
Leslie's in-laws drove her to the nearest hospital, where she was evaluated, diagnosed with a pulled muscle, and sent home the next morning. Still in severe pain that evening, she returned to the hospital, where she went into cardiac arrest.
An exam and further testing confirmed that Leslie had suffered type A aortic dissection, a tear in the upper aorta that can extend to the arteries in the leg.
LifeFlight was called to transport Leslie to the Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) Cardiovascular Institute. While the actual flight would only last five minutes, Leslie's blood pressure continued to drop, and the LifeFlight crew began a blood transfusion using the universal donor blood (O-) that they carry on every flight for situations like this.
Arriving at AGH around 4 a.m., she had surgery later that morning, on May 21. Stephen H. Bailey, MD, director of cardiac surgery, repaired the dissection and transferred Leslie to the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. Leslie suffered a stroke and seizures, and underwent inpatient rehabilitation before being released home.
While she can't recall details of the actual flight, Leslie has nothing but praise for LifeFlight's crew members who provided care at her bedside and in the helicopter, while taking her to AGH for specialized, expert quality care.
"I definitely wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them," Leslie said. "I went into cardiac arrest while I was on the helicopter. Their expert care and fast care made a difference. They stabilized me."
Leslie had no personal or family history of heart problems. At age 43 and female, she doesn't fit the typical type A aortic dissection patient, most of whom are older and male.
Though Leslie has some residual fine motor skill challenges caused by stroke, she is forever grateful to be able to still enjoy life with her husband, their 13-year-old daughter, and two sons, ages 14 and 8.
Most of Orville Gadsby’s family farm has been turned over to his sons, but the 84-year-old continues to tend beef cows and chickens in his fields in Polk, Pennsylvania. On Aug. 21, 2016, he was out in the field tending to a wandering calf, when his Great Pyrenees puppy, Beauty, ran into the pasture and startled a Watusi cow.
"The dog ran between my legs and I turned around. I don't remember the cow charging me," said Orville. "When I woke up there was blood everywhere."
Orville got to his feet and was able to stagger a couple of hundred feet back to the house, where he called John and Ginny Gadsby, his son and daughter-in-law, who live a few miles away. They drove him to Grove City Medical Center.
Orville was taken to the emergency department, where the doctors found multiple rib fractures and serious injuries to his right chest. A sucking chest wound was pulling air into the thoracic cavity through the chest wall instead of into the lungs through the airways. This caused paradoxical movement, a reversal of the normal breathing movements of the chest, and he was unable to move air properly. Doctors could actually see his lung through the wound.
As the Grove City emergency team worked to stabilize Orville, they requested LifeFlight. On arrival, the LifeFlight crew spent only 12 minutes bedside. The crew provided pain control and prepared Orville for the 22-minute flight to Allegheny General Hospital (AGH), 40 minutes faster than a trip by ambulance.
Though he doesn’t remember his time on LifeFlight, Orville stayed conscious during the trip and was received by the AGH trauma team. Doctors began treating his sucking chest wound with a flail segment, a hemopneumothorax (blood and air in the chest cavity), a right pulmonary contusion, and a cervical spine subluxation. In the operating room, doctors cleaned and treated his chest wound, placing two chest tubes to manage the hemopneumothorax.
"I'd passed out and woke up a few days later, all patched up," he said. Discharged on Sept. 1, he was transferred to inpatient rehabilitation at West Penn Hospital and other rehabilitation facilities.
It is difficult for such an independent man to depend on others. He is not driving and initially found it hard to walk. But he is steadily recovering. "I'm at the point where I can get around now to feed the chickens and gather the eggs," Orville said.
Lawrence Sandy — Brought Back to Life
Lawrence Sandy, 70, has no memory of the four days before and after his heart attack on June 13, 2016, a side effect of the drugs he was given in the hospital. But he told the operator who answered his 911 call that his heart was racing, and he had cold sweats and chest pain.
He then collapsed, unconscious, into a chair and was in cardiac arrest when North Strabane firefighters and police arrived, with a Canonsburg Emergency Medical Services (EMS) team right behind.
Lawrence lives in North Strabane Township, Washington County, with his wife Barbara. The couple has three grown children and a new grandson, Colm. Lawrence is retired from employment with Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory. He putters around the house and yard, does crossword puzzles, and enjoys mysteries on TV and in books.
But his sudden heart attack was no mystery. "I've had atrial fibrillation (Afib) in my heart since June 2007, and a pseudoaneurysm," he said. Afib is an irregular, often rapid heart rate that can cause poor blood flow. A pseudoaneurysm, or false aneurysm, is blood that pools between the two outer layers of the artery. Both conditions can lead to other heart problems.
"That August I had a mild stroke, and I still have a little bit of memory and speech problems from that, and some weakness on my right side," he said.
When the teams arrived, Lawrence wasn't breathing, and didn't have a pulse, so they began CPR. As his wife, son, and a neighbor watched, six medics defibrillated him seven times to bring him back to life.
They then gave him medication and started IV therapy, preparing to take him to the Canonsburg Hospital (CH) emergency department. After arriving there, he was further stabilized and flown to Allegheny General Hospital (AGH). During the 10-minute flight, his blood pressure remained low. The flight nurses administered vasopressors and adjusted his ventilator to increase his oxygen intake.
At AGH, Lawrence was admitted, and doctors started a cooling protocol to protect his brain while his body recovered.
"They implanted a defibrillator and pacemaker in my chest," Lawrence said. "There are internal monitors that track my heart rate and report back to the doctor. If I have an attack, they are alerted," he said.
Lawrence has no memory of the incident, and thankfully, no permanent damage.
In September 2016, he returned to CH to meet and thank the paramedics who saved his life. "They don't often get a chance to see how people are after they get them to the hospital. They were happy to find out that I did so well," he said.
Adam Gadsby — A Fight for Life
Adam Gadsby, 37, of Stoneboro, Pennsylvania, was having a bad week. His severe cold continued to linger, and he'd been to Grove City Medical Center for treatment. He'd also had an incident on his family's farm, getting covered with a grain fungus that was in the animal feed. Orville Gadsby is Adam's grandfather.
By Feb. 14, 2016, he could barely breathe. Coughing up blood, with a temperature of 103, Adam went to the Grove City Medical Center's Emergency Department.
Finding his oxygen saturations in the low 60s, (normal is the high 90s) emergency department doctors swiftly started IVs and antibiotics, applied an oxygen mask, and eventually intubated him to deliver even higher levels of oxygen. They called for LifeFlight to speed his transport to Allegheny General Hospital (AGH). The LifeFlight crew helped get Adam to the right level of sedation to safely transport and ventilate him, spending 20 minutes bedside before a 25-minute flight to AGH, less than half the time it would have taken by ground.
"He was critical. We were afraid he was not going to make it," said his mother, Cathy Gadsby, a former nurse.
In the Medical Intensive Care Unit at AGH, Adam was diagnosed with adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). It became difficult to ventilate him, especially when he was lying on his back. He was placed on a bi-level ventilator and a bed that continually rotated.
"Adam thought the fungus in the grain that had spilled on him was now attacking his lungs," Cathy said.
It took several weeks to confirm that the aspergillus fungus in the animal feed had harmed Adam's respiratory system, penetrating his immune system, which was weak after his cold.
Despite receiving maximum ventilator support and being in a medically induced coma, Adam wasn't making progress and couldn't be stabilized.
The only option left for the doctors was to place him on Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO), a means of respiratory support that assists the lungs and heart by externally treating blood. To do that, Adam would need to be flat on his back for an hour during the ECMO placement. But whenever he was on his back for more than two minutes, Adam's vital signs would plummet.
"He spent 60 days in the hospital and his heart was starting to give out," said Cathy. "It was touch and go. The doctors told us there was nothing more they could do. He needed the ECMO but he couldn't handle the surgery."
The AGH medical team helped Adam get strong enough to tolerate being placed on ECMO, and eventually he started to improve. He was gravely ill through mid-March, when he came out of a medically induced coma. His first new memory was feeling a full beard on his face —which is usually closely cropped — and not being sure why. On March 22 he was discharged to a skilled nursing facility for physical rehabilitation. "He's home and doing OK now," said Cathy. "He doesn't remember the experience and is still having problems with his memory and his breathing. He's not totally in the clear, but he's back to coaching wrestling, which he loves."
Expert Nurses and Flight Coordinators
Highly qualified, experienced professionals — on the ground and in the air — deliver the medical care and vital communications that make LifeFlight rescues possible.
"We are helped by medics, firefighters, nurses, physicians, hospital security officers and so many others. They all do their jobs well, so that the situation is right for us to do ours. All of us together make it happen," said Senior Flight Nurse Trina Litterini, RN, BSN, CED, PHRN.
Trina has been a LifeFlight nurse for 25 years, the peak of a 40-year career in nursing and emergency department nursing. "It is the most independent form of nursing, an ever-changing and rewarding specialty," Trina said. "We have to be ready for anything, to draw on our experience and resources to do the best job we can for that patient at that moment."
LifeFlight nurses must be certified as emergency nurses and as prehospital nurses. LifeFlight sets the bar high, with many members of the nursing team having decades of experience. They handle rotating shifts at the various LifeFlight base sites. Time between emergency calls is spent preparing for flights and taking online courses to stay current with educational requirements.
Chad Dill, RN, CEN, RRT, PHRN, is the newest member of the LifeFlight team, However, he has 17 years' experience, having flown with other flight programs, while also gaining experience as a paramedic and respiratory therapist.
"I took a long time to get here, but I'm elated to have this job," said Chad. "I like to have the chance to help people, to make a difference at a crucial time in their lives."
Chad continues to learn from the veterans on the team. "The biggest challenge is making that split-second decision to do the right thing for the patient and their families,” Chad said. "That's where you draw on your experience. But it's just as important to treat each person with kindness and compassion."
Coordinating team safety through communications
Clear, timely communication with the local fire and rescue departments is critical for the safety of both the LifeFlight crew and the patients. LifeFlight emergency transportation coordinators Jim Jochem and Dan Gulasy talk to 911 operators to confirm the landing location and convey the patient's needs to the medical crew.
Jim has been a dispatcher since 1985, having started as a medical technician at the Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) Emergency Department in 1976. He is a recipient of the EMS Champion Award from the Allegheny County Emergency Medical Services Council. He met his wife Kathleen at AGH; she worked in the lab and they've been married since 1988.
"I like the challenges, to talk to the people on the ground and make sure the landing site is safe. We coordinate with the ground responders and get our pilots on their way," Jim said. "We work with a good team and watch each other so there are no mistakes. Everyone works as one team."
Jim and Dan relay all medical information to LifeFlight and hospital emergency department nurses in cases of trauma, car crashes, cardiac arrest, or an occasional obstetrics case. "We also track the helicopter in flight — at 2 miles a minute — so we are always able to find it if the situation changes."
Dan has been a paramedic since 1989; he became interested in the field as an Explorer Boy Scout, growing up in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
He still works on an ambulance but moved to part-time dispatching three years ago. The dispatchers also take all the ambulance calls for AGH or West Penn Hospital. "When emergency departments know that an ambulance is on the way, and the patient's condition and needs, they can be better prepared," he said.
"It is our duty to try and bring a sense of calm, to reassure people on what might be the worst day of their life, that we will get them the help they need and do the best we can," said Dan.