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Michael Abernethy, MD


I am a flight physician with the University of Wisconsin Hospitals helicopter program - Medflight located in Madison Wisconsin. Our flight crew consists of a doctor, nurse and pilot. Being a flight doc is an interesting niche. In the US, most of the 250 or so medical flight programs staff with paramedics or nurses. Only a handful employ attending level, emergency medicine trained physicians such as myself. We transport critically ill and injured patients from outlying hospitals and accident scenes. I work out of a specially equipped, state of the art, Augsta 109 helicopter that is literally an emergency room with wings. Most people would probably consider this a very stressful and dangerous job. It really is not. First of all, this is not an entry level position. It requires years of training and experience. In the emergency room, I often take care of multiple critical patients at one time. That can certainly get stressful. On the helicopter I have the luxury of focusing all my attention on a single patient. As far as danger - the chances of being killed or injured on my 60 mile drive to and from work are a hundred fold higher than anything ever happening to me on the helicopter. Our pilots number one priority is to get us out and back safely. If the conditions wont allow that - we don't fly.

Years in position

12 years as a flight physician - 9 with Medflight.




Too much!! I became an EMT ( emergency medical technician) at age 20. I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering (Ohio State) before I even thought of going to med school. Add 4 years of medical school( Univ of Cincinnati) and another 4 years of specialty training in Emergency medicine and Aeromedical transport (Univ of Chicago). College was the best 15 years of my life!

How many hours do you work per week? And what are your hours -- as in, what time of day or night?

In this type of work - we are open for business 24/7. There are no such things as holidays or weekends. About the only thing that can keep us down is bad weather.

What's the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning? We usually get together for a crew briefing. We discuss aircraft and equipment issues. We then try to have some coffee if there are no flights pending

What time do you have lunch? What do you usually eat?

I usually grab lunch when I can between flights. I am a vegaterian. I mainly eat at our hospital cafeteria which, in my opinion, has pretty good food.

What time do things get tense around the office? What makes it that way?

This type of job naturally attracts strong willed and independent people. Obviously there will be differences of opinion and personality conflicts. However, it seldom, if ever, happens in critical situations. In this business, most of the people are at their very best when the s#%t really hits the fan.

If you're having a good day at work, what is it that makes it good?

Firemen dream of fighting the big blaze. Police look forward to the big chase. I get great satisfaction from taking care of critically ill patients in an amazing variety of conditions and situations. It's a strange dichotomy. On a good day, we have lots of flights. This in turn means that there are many injured or ill people out there. I would never wish harm or illness to any person - but if a major accident/incident/catastrophe is going to happen, I want to be there to help. This is why I trained so long and hard.

How much work, if any, do you take home?

None! I punch the clock

What does your work contribute to society?

I help keep some people around - who otherwise would not be long for this world.

Do you expect to finish your working life in this career?

I certainly hope so.

If you could have two more careers, what would they be?

1. Dolphin trainer at Sea World 2. Bluegrass banjo player

What's an unforgivable trait in a colleague?

"Hotdog" or "cowboy" behavior amongst Emergency Medical personnel. It is usually a sign of insecurity and/or poor skills.

What do you do to relieve stress?

I live in the country on 10 acres. There is always something to fix and chores to be done. My wife and I operate a no kill animal shelter from our property with over 250 cats and 50 dogs. It's a wonderful thing but a lot of work. Then there are the children. Wait a minute......... I work Medflight for my stress relief! I really like the people I work with. I love the job.

What have you been reading lately?

I am currently reading Dr. Seuss( for the hundredth time or so). - He was a genius in every sense of the word.

When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work?

This job puts things in perspective. Especially since the events of 9/11. Its hard to get upset over a flooded basement or a flat tire when earlier that day - you had to break the news to parents that their 2 children were just killed in a car accident. Fortunately ( or unfortunately) I routinely see bad things happen to innocent people whose only fault is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am constantly reminded of how precious life and good health are and just how quickly it can all disappear for no apparent reason.

I eat dessert first. Carpe Diem



• University of Wisconsin - Medflight
• FlightWeb

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