Lauren Sutherland was shopping in Lowe’s when she received a text message. As customers were busily walking past her, she looked down at her phone and started crying.
Tears were streaming down her face.
As a Christus Flight for Life pilot, the Hideaway resident already had one crying session with her crew when they flew a little girl who looked like she had drowned.
The text message was a photo of a girl. Sutherland texted back, “Who is this?”
The mother said, “It’s her! She is fine!”
“I’m a mom. These kids look like my own children. The mom typically sits up front with me while we fly their child in the back,” said Sutherland.
“I keep in communication with the parents and it looked like this girl was not going to make it ... When we returned ... as a crew, we cried. I cried.
“When I received this text, tears just started flowing down my face ... that is what keeps me going,” Sutherland added.
On Monday, she will be going all the way to Atlanta to the Air Medical Transport Conference where she will be named the National EMS Pilot Association Pilot of the Year.
“We are able to make someone’s worst day of their life hopefully a little bit better,” said Sutherland. “I fly them ... I’m not actually working on the patient ... but I do feel like I play a role. With mom or dad or family, I always try to be there for them. I try to get a phone number and call them when we land. The relationship with them is really rewarding.”
THE GRAND CANYON
Sutherland honed her flying skills for a few years in the Grand Canyon, but the same thing each day lured her to East Texas with her family for the most rewarding job of her life.
“I would fly people from all over the world, we would fly into the Grand Canyon, go to the bottom, have lunch, take photos and fly back. But it was the same thing each day,” she said.
“And that’s when I knew it was time to go. With this job, I do not get that feeling.”
What keeps her going is her co-workers.
“Our crew is the best of the best. The crew is doing things on a helicopter that only doctors in a hospital can do ... it’s amazing what they do. I feel I have the easy job to do!” Sutherland said.
“First responders, we are all so tight, we go through so much and rely on each other. I always come into work with a great attitude. I am a morning person and tell them, ‘It’s a great day to have a great day!’ We depend on each other.”
Sutherland can fly three different helicopters without looking out the window. That was just part of why she is winning the award. Flying in many conditions started with the Grand Canyon.
“The Grand Canyon has high winds and a lot of different terrain. It gave me an opportunity to work on my flying skills,” she explained.
“The way our industry works, you have to fly so many hours. I was able to train students and once I had 1,000 hours I was able to get a job here. All of that experience prepares you for a job like this. You are on your own, you are one pilot and you are in the air for 10 minutes and many times you don’t know where you are going, you have to check the weather, know where you can go or not go, and figure out if you are going to a hospital here in Tyler or Dallas or Shreveport.”
NOMINATING A HERO
Dusty Ross, flight paramedic with Christus Flight for Life, will present Sutherland with the award as his nomination pushed her over the top for the International honor she will receive Monday in Atlanta.
“Lauren is a Program Pilot for PHI (Petroleum Helicopters Incorporated) dedicated to Christus Flight for Life Aeromedical and can fly all three helicopters, the EC145, the EC135 and the Bell 405GX ... That is a huge accomplishment, there are very few people in the PHI who can fly all three of the aircraft,” Ross said.
“I submitted the nominations in the spring and filled out what is needed to be a top-tier pilot. I submitted the highlights of what she does for us, what she does for the industry and what she does for patients and how she stands out above everyone else.
“Being a female in a male-dominated industry is always great. It’s something we don’t see a lot of, female pilots,” he added.
It turns out Ross was not the only one to nominate Sutherland.
“A lot of people submitted for Lauren and they chose my nomination. I am honored to be the one who gets to present her the honor in Atlanta,” said Ross. “I knew Lauren did a lot for the program, but when you sit down and see everything she does for the program and the multifacets of her job, it really highlighted what a great crew member, pilot and asset she is for PHI and Christus Flight for Life.
“She also teaches all of our air resource management classes for all of our crews and the safety classes for the entire state of Texas. She also helps with marketing, she goes to all of the conferences, outreach education, she does LC classes, she is a huge patient advocate, she is there for all mothers, children and families .. she is a vital part of our program,” Ross added.
The National EMC Pilot Association membership is for any pilot who flies a helicopter or plane anywhere in the world for medical reasons. The Pilot of the Year program started in 1984 and the award honors someone who goes above and beyond and makes sure the patient and the crews get home safely.
Sutherland said, “I was told I was nominated and thought ‘oh cool’ but a lot are nominated. I know I come to work every day with a good attitude and I do it the best I can and try to get better.” She also feels it is a team award. ”I work with the best of the best and every day I learn a little more for them,” she said. “So I feel humbled. When I found out I won I was thinking, ‘Let me tell you about the people I work with!’ But I am humbled and I know I go to work each day and do the best I can.”
Ross said in his nomination, “Lauren exemplifies professionalism in every way possible. She is an extremely hard worker, covers multiple bases in our five-base company, goes out of her way to generate PR events, actively participates in said PR events and other events throughout our service area, is a huge patient advocate and comforter of the parents accompanying the patients flown, is very empathetic to the patient’s conditions and often keeps in touch with the family members checking in on the family member flown. I’ve even known her to send Uber Eats gift cards to a family waiting to harvest their young child’s organs after a flight. She is a great community advocate for our program and HEMS in general.”
FLYING WHEN NO ONE ELSE CAN
A lot of times a patient in critical condition is not able to fly to a hospital because of fog or bad weather. Instead, those critical hours are spent with a paramedic in an ambulance driving to a hospital for surgery. Not when Lauren Sutherland is on the job.
“She is IFR qualified, meaning she can fly in inclement weather when we have low clouds and low visibility,” said Ross.
“She can look at and use the instruments and fly the helicopter without having to look out the window; that’s a huge accomplishment and takes a ton of skill and practice.
“That’s not only a great accomplishment for her, but she can do it on three platforms. That is very unheard of in this EMS environment,” Ross added.
IT’S ALL ABOUT ATTITUDE
When the crew is going through the motions, Sutherland will take them to a full gym and workout room Christus set up. Or they work on some of the dummies and training aides. She said the crew has to be in the best shape possible to get a patient to the helicopter. They also have to be mentally strong.
“She also has the compassion and spirit every day for this,” said Ross. “She says something different every day, like, ‘It’s a great day to be a pilot’ or, ‘It’s a great to save a life.’ It sounds like (the hit medical TV show) ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ every day when she comes into work! She is happy to be there and the crews really follow along with her spirit and positive attitude.”
Sutherland said work for Christus Flight for Life feels like family.
“We are family. Every time we come to work, it’s a pilot, paramedic and a nurse. We are like firemen, we are at our base waiting for the tones to go off,” she said.
“We become family and that is a big part of our job, getting along with everybody. We cook together, we do safety training, anything to fill in the time. When the tones go off, that’s when the critical phase of our flight starts. You are seeing a lot of stuff and going through a lot of stuff, so it really brings the crew together.”
IN HIS WORDS
In the nomination, Ross added, “Lauren is SPIFR qualified, has her ATP, and flies three different aircraft types for our program ... There are very few pilots that PHI Air Medical, our vendor, allows to be current in three aircraft, yet she is one of them. She is also one of, if not the only, female PHI rated in three aircraft!
“Lauren is a wealth of knowledge on all three platforms our company operates. She is a resource for our pilots when they have questions and helps transition new pilots to their respective bases and roles. She takes on numerous projects for both Flight for Life and PHI to help educate and promote our mission. She is also active when we have state and local EMS conferences with a presence at the event to help promote our program, answer aviation questions, and as an overall ambassador for both programs.
“She takes initiative to reach out to our base leads to fill schedule gaps and make herself available as well as going into bases and flying the remainder of other pilots’ shifts to maintain currency in an aircraft if it has been awhile since she has flown that particular type. She also acts as a liaison for our management and has been an invaluable resource in expanding from 1 IFR aircraft in 6/2018 to three IFR aircraft in 7/2019.”
THE LAUREN FILES
Name: Lauren Sutherland Job Title: Christus Trinity Mother Frances Health System Flight for Life Program pilot
Years on the job: Seven years
Prior job: Flew tours of the Grand Canyon Family: Husband Robert Sutherland (service engineer for Turbomeca) Children: stepson Zachary Sutherland (18), son Oliver Sutherland (6) and son Harland Sutherland (5) Hobbies: I love to work out and Camp Gladiator is my favorite. My family is the center of my universe and anything with them is the best. I love almost every human I meet and consider myself a people person. I get to know the checkout lady’s whole life while checking out at the grocery store. What makes my job special: No. 1 the people. We practically live together and spend hours and hours with each other. They are the best people with hearts of gold. No. 2, I get to fly a helicopter, which is obviously the coolest thing ever. No. 3, I get to help people on their darkest days. I am very empathetic and even though I am only the pilot, I would like to feel that I play a role in giving the family comfort.