Working with Star Flight

By Bill Hanson – March 13, 2013
Bill Hanson

Where being an athlete and on the job meet
I have always been in good physical condition, though why wasn’t always clear. Sometimes, I recognized the purpose for being fit. At age 19, I scored best in my platoon on the U.S. Army physical readiness test. In my twenties, I worked as mountain guide and climbed peaks daily, sometimes carrying my clients’ backpacks in addition to my own (and occasionally even carrying my clients). In college, I started competing in triathlons for no particular purpose other than stress relief and, at 34, I took first place in my age category at an off-road triathlon in Vermont. It sounds like quite an accomplishment until you realize that I was the only male in my age category! It was when I moved to Austin at age 41 that I first discovered a community that treated fitness as a lifestyle. Suddenly, I was no longer placing first in triathlons! It was then that I also found myself working alongside other paramedics and nurses (in addition to firefighters, police, and EMTs) who viewed physical fitness as an important part of their job preparedness. Since then, working as a flight paramedic for STAR Flight has given me a real purpose for continuing to stay in shape as I approach my fifties.

Working as a flight paramedic, helicopter rescue specialist, and crew chief for Travis County STAR Flight is a physically demanding job. On any given day, you need to be ready to lift a patient out of a car (or off the roof of the car during a flooding event), swim after a victim who may be drowning, rappel down a cliff, or balance on the skid of an aircraft during a fire-fighting mission or a hoist operation. You must be able to perform all of your duties, day after day, in triple-digit heat or in near-freezing cold, without warm-up or cool-down.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of the job, though, is in balancing the physical training for the job with the daily performance of the job. It is so easy on any given day to engage in several forms of quality exercise in Austin, from paddling on Lady Bird Lake to running on the Barton Creek greenbelt, but I have had to learn to be careful. I space my higher impact workout days far enough away from my workdays in order to avoid showing up for my duties with an “exercise hangover.” I usually schedule my high-impact days right after my scheduled shifts in a week, scaling down to more toning and maintenance workouts as the following workweek approaches. My favorite thing to do on the first day after a set of shifts is take a long run up the Twin Falls trail. The day before I return to work, I like to swim in the pool at Barton Springs.

Emergencies don’t follow a schedule and, in a county where fires and flooding can occur as regularly as an outdoor concert, you need to be prepared to push your limits when the unexpected happens. During the Labor Day fires in 2011, for instance, I participated in the Austin triathlon that morning and then had to respond to a county-wide emergency call out, spending the afternoon fighting the Pedernales fire. Being in chronically good physical condition, something that an active Austin lifestyle makes easy, allowed me to meet the rigorous demands of that day.

I like to engage in a variety of exercise types in order to fulfill the varied demands of the job. Swimming is a necessity of the job for a STAR Flight paramedic and, in Austin, I can swim outdoors all year. Paddleboarding on Lady Bird Lake gives me the core strength I need in order to lift patients from awkward positions, and yoga helps me maintain the flexibility I might need when crawling into an overturned car or while attaching a water-bucket to the bottom of the aircraft during fire-fighting. Trail running on the greenbelt helps keep my ankles strong and enables me to acclimate to the heat in summer. Rock climbing gives me the confidence I need to stand out on the skid of the aircraft during a fire or a rescue.

Coming to Austin to work in rescue felt like something I had been preparing for all my life. And working rescue in Austin has given me something to keep preparing for every day.


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