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The Teen Who Didn't Make It — And The Nurses He Moved Along The Way

Jul 24, 2015

For more than a decade, Wilson Matthews and Jeanne Yeatman worked together as flight nurses on emergency response helicopters. Over that time, they cared for countless patients as they were being transported to hospitals. One flight in particular, though, remains impossible for them to forget.

They had been trying to save a 13-year-old named Stephen. He'd been riding his bicycle over a dirt jump when he fell and suffered severe head trauma.

By the time he made it into the helicopter, nothing that Wilson or Jeanne tried was doing any good.

"Even in a bad situation something's usually working a little bit, but nothing was working," Wilson says. "So we just started making up stuff to do because neither one of us wanted to stop."

Stephen went into cardiac arrest during the flight. He died before he could make it to the hospital.

"You know," Jeanne says, "until you've really fought for somebody and then seen them die right before your eyes — you can't explain it."

Months later, Stephen's mom reached out to the two of them.

"I remember being terrified, not knowing if she was going to be angry that we didn't save him," Wilson says. "But she wanted to touch us and hug us because we were the last people to see her boy alive.

"That was 14 years ago," he adds. "So his mom has been without him as long as she was with him."

Still, for as long as they've done the job, the relationships they share with their patients and their families continue to give them pause.

"You know," Jeanne observes, "I think we're invited into people's lives at their very worst moments. People don't plan for us. People don't expect to see us. And meeting her, I know, forever changed my life because, I mean, it is the reason we do this."

"The flight with Stephen still is with me every day," Wilson says. "I mean, his picture is in my locker so every time I take my helmet out to go on a flight he's looking at me. And I know you have the same picture in your office."

Beside Wilson's helmet, behind Jeanne in her office, Stephen remains a daily part of their lives. It's not just a rote reminder of procedure, or even of responsibility.

"It reminds me that we're not just taking care of the patient," Wilson says. "We're taking care of somebody's family."

It's been nearly a decade and a half since that flight, but Wilson still feels its effects, even now.

"It's easy to get caught up in all that we have to do to be able to do what we do everyday. But I'm more of a human flight nurse than I was. I see things a little differently now."

Produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's Friday, time for StoryCorps, people telling stories that have shaped their lives. For more than a decade, Wilson Matthews and Jeanne Yeatman worked together as flight nurses on emergency response helicopters, caring for patients who were being transported to hospitals. And at StoryCorps, they spoke about one flight. They were trying to save a 13-year-old named Stephen who had been severely injured in a bike accident.

WILSON MATTHEWS: I remember being in the helicopter with him. Even in a bad situation, something's usually working a little bit. But nothing was working. You know, you have the mental checklist. And we ran out of the standards, so we just started making up stuff to do 'cause neither one of us wanted to stop.

JEANNE YEATMAN: It seemed like a really long flight. You know, until you've really fought for somebody and then seen them die right before your eyes, you can't explain it.

MATTHEWS: When his mom wanted to meet with us a couple months after, I remember being terrified, not knowing if she was going to be angry that we didn't save him. But she wanted to touch us and hug us because we were the last people to see her boy alive. That was 14 years ago. So his mom has been without him as long as she was with him.

YEATMAN: You know, I think we're invited into people's lives at their very worst moments. People don't plan for us. People don't expect to see us. And meeting her I know forever changed my life because, I mean, it is the reason we do this.

MATTHEWS: The flight with Stephen still is with me every day. I mean, his picture is in my locker. So every time I take my helmet out to go on a flight, he's looking at me. And I know you have the same picture in your office. How often are you seeing it?

YEATMAN: Every day...

MATTHEWS: Every day.

YEATMAN: It sits right behind me.

MATTHEWS: And it's not so much a technical reminder of intubations or medications or procedures. But it reminds me that we're not just taking care of the patient; we're taking care of somebody's family. It's easy to get caught up in all that we have to do to be able to do what we do every day. But I'm more of a human flight nurse than I was. I see things a little differently now.

GREENE: Wilson Matthews and Jeanne Yeatman at StoryCorps in Nashville, Tenn. Their conversation will be archived in the Library of Congress, and you can see the latest animated short from StoryCorps on NPR's Code Switch at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.