Damon Sanger was a teenage fry cook at a fast food joint in Clear Lake when a gruesome car crash occurred one Saturday after a customer was hit leaving the drive-thru. A slew of emergency responders descended on the chaotic scene, but Sanger was focused on those who arrived by helicopter. Life Flight, Memorial Hermann’s pioneering air ambulance service, made the job look effortless that day. They circled, landed, grabbed the crash victim, and soared off into the clouds once more, all in a matter of minutes.
“I was just stunned,” Sanger said. “That’s when I started thinking about flying helicopters.”
He did that for the U.S. Army, but when he left the military, his thoughts returned to that fateful Saturday. He found himself interviewing for a job at Life Flight, recalling how, as an impressionable teenager, witnessing that car crash and Life Flight’s response to it left a mark on him, made him wonder: Can I do that? When he told the story, the interviewer looked contemplative.
“He said, 'You know, Damon, I was the pilot that day,'” Sanger said. “He remembered that fast food restaurant; he remembered that road. I just got this sense of serendipity.”
That was eight years ago; today, when a cherry red chopper cuts a striking figure through the Houston sky, it means help is on the way, and it’s often helmed by Sanger, Life Flight’s chief pilot.
Often by his side is Rudy Cabrera, chief flight nurse, a 13-year veteran of Life Flight and self-described adrenaline junkie.
“Greatest thing I like about it is the unknown,” Cabrera said. “It’s zero to 60 in seconds. You’re walking and talking about what you’re going to do tomorrow, and the next thing you know, you have a critical patient.”
A three-person crew–pilot, nurse, and paramedic–average three to four flights a day, responding to anything and everything from drownings to shootings to electrocutions. Sanger has landed aircraft in the middle of highways, on the Fred Hartman Bridge, and between the piney trees of East Texas.
Aside from accident responses, Life Flight also transports patients who need care at a higher-level trauma center. Most recently, Cabrera flew a 16-year-old car crash victim to the Texas Medical Center with two broken legs, a fractured pelvis, open wounds, and abdominal injuries.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “How do you deal with those things? In the moment, you do your job … after, you decompress.”
Cabrera and Sanger recall a few of the thousands of missions they’ve flown for Life Flight. As told to Abby Ledoux; edited for brevity and clarity.
First day on the job
"We shift change at 6 a.m., so I got there at 5:20 with donuts, thinking I’d beat the med crew. As soon as I got there, the pilot going off-shift said, ‘You’ve got a flight’ and handed me the radio. I remember thinking, ‘OK, so much for the donuts.’ By the way, it was dark–this was before the days of night vision goggles. We were dispatched to an industrial accident at an oil refinery with a critical patient about a four-minute flight away. I got there, and it was just wires and towers everywhere, and the patient was contaminated–then, we found out there were actually three or four patients. I radioed for backup, and we were first to land. The fourth patient died on-scene, so we triaged the surviving three and coordinated with the other Life Flight crews. The patients had to be decontaminated before loading or else we’d all be overwhelmed by fumes in the confined space. At the helipad, we were all decontaminated again before entering the hospital. They had a long road ahead of them, but the fact that we got them here to a level 1 trauma center was the ability for them to get the care they needed, to give them an opportunity to heal. That was my first flight before the official shift change. And the day kept rolling, flight after flight after flight. At the time, I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ It was a real jolt." –Damon Sanger
Most memorable flight
"We flew out to Huntsville to pick up a patient who was ejected from her rolling vehicle, which landed on top of her. Crews had removed the vehicle and the patient was still alive when we arrived, so we loaded her into the aircraft and began administering blood products. We used ultrasonography to scan the abdomen for blood or fluid, and during that process I found a baby, about 28 weeks along. The mother was very, very sick, and it was a very taxing and difficult time. We did a C-section in the emergency room and the baby lived, but the mother did not. It was a tragedy that the family lost the mother, but the baby was discharged from the hospital. That one always sticks in my head—it was very much a big eye-opener about our responsibilities and what we do every day." –Rudy Cabrera
Are we there yet?
"Not long ago, I picked up a 76-year-old patient who had a heart attack at a barbecue. When we were lowering her into the helicopter, her heart stopped beating. We were able to shock her immediately, and she woke up and said, ‘Did the barbecue finish?’ We gave her some medicine, delivered her to the hospital, she got her intervention, and she was discharged home." –Rudy Cabrera