HAMILTON — A constant witness to the fragility of life, Jessica Oakley offers advice in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Something this job has really taught me is how quickly life can change,” she said. “I wish everyone had that realization so that everyone makes the most of what time they have and to not hold grudges.”
A flight nurse on board Premier Health’s CareFlight since 2013, Oakley said her job can be both heartbreaking and rewarding.
“I see people that are having probably one of the worst days of their lives. But I want to be there to try and make it just a little bit better,” she said.
Oakley, 36, is a single mother who lives in Troy with her 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
“She represents one of the unsung heroes during all of this,” said friend Scott Marshall, who nominated Oakley as one who helps and inspires others in the region.
“Not only is she on the front lines out there helping those in need with being a flight nurse. But one of the other sides of all of this … is that parent who’s at home with their kids during online learning,” Marshall said.
Oakley works three 12-hour days, which often stretch into four with meetings and continuing education. On her days off she’s home helping her neighbor’s kindergartner and first grader, and her own second grader and fifth grader with their online lessons.
“When you pile school on top of that, that’s just a big ask and a tough task. She excels at that; she does it with grace and really does a great job in doing all that in stride,” Marshall said.
Prior to this school year, Oakley taught nursing as an adjunct faculty member at Edison State Community College, but had to put that aside because she needed the flexibility to educate her children.
When she returns home from work, her children stop her at the door and ask whether she had any COVID patients. On days that she has, the children don’t get hugs until after Oakley strips down and showers, she said.
Oakley’s interest in being a flight nurse was set in motion when she was 14 and a boyfriend at the time was in a significant motor vehicle accident and flown to Grant Medical Center in Columbus.
She assisted with his recovery in the hospital, and at the same time took notice of the healthcare workers — and those in the air.
“I thought that was kind of cool, and you can fly in a helicopter. ‘Let’s see what it takes to get there,’” she said.
Oakley started studying nursing in 2003, but before that she was an EMT while in high school and responded to 911 calls while attending nursing school at the Kettering College of Medical Arts.
As a flight nurse, Oakley has responded to accidents, stabbings, shootings, ATV accidents and drownings. But the CareFlight crew also transports patients, usually from smaller hospitals and clinics to larger facilities where the patient can get specialized care.
The CareFlight crew is small — a pilot and two flight nurses — so Oakley is trained in a multitude of advanced lifesaving procedures.
“That’s one of the unique things with being a flight nurse, we wear many hats,” she said. “We deal with high risk OB (obstetrics) patients, we deal with the pediatrics, we deal with patients that are having strokes, patients that are having heart attacks. We kind of know a little bit about a lot.”
But none of the training fully prepared Oakley and other healthcare workers for coronavirus.
“We really didn’t know what we were facing, what the best practices were, what kind of equipment we should be using, how should we be treating these patients,” she said.
Oakley — who now must wear a head cap, mask, a full covering on over a flight suit, double gloves and booties — has seen the virus infect people of all ages.
“We initially thought this is going to impact only the elderly; the younger people may get sick, but it’s not going to be that bad. We’re seeing that’s not the case.,” she said. “It can hit anybody and it can do significant damage.”
Despite a better understanding now of how to guard against spread of the virus, the number of patients Oakley helps transport has been on the upswing over the last month — as many as 40%, she said.
Oakley knows her actions have helped certain patients survive.
“That always makes it a little more memorable, especially ones that are not doing so well and you don’t think that they’re going to make it,” she said.
Better, she said, is simply holding the hand of an elderly person who’s sick or injured and afraid.
“I would want somebody to do that for my 85-year-old papaw, and I’m glad that I can do that for somebody else’s family member,” she said.