Duty Calls

Cape Cod Life  /  June 2019 /

Writer: Blair Miller

photos courtesy of the first responders

First responders reflect on their local impact

As they walk along the tarmac at Plymouth Municipal Airport, there’s something mysterious about the pilots who are making their deliberate approach toward their aircraft. In their bold, blue flight suits, they step on board a shiny, metallic blue twin-engine helicopter that’s headed off to the unknown. The mission is always clear: help those who need it most. Each chopper carries an elite team, including a pilot and a highly trained medical team with a critical care nurse and critical care paramedic. Off they venture, rarely rattled and prepared to handle everything from the worst traffic accidents to transporting patients from hospital to hospital.  

Cape Cod has become one of Boston MedFlight’s hot spots to help, especially in the summer months because of the mere ease of flying a helicopter above the traffic that’s so remarkably inherent to the Cape during those warmer months. The critical care transport team treats about 300 patients each year from the Cape, with 42 percent of incidents occurring between June 1st and September 30th. Most of their calls are for traumas—the worst of the worst—but they also transfer many patients from hospital to hospital to receive a different kind of treatment. People tend to be in awe of the helicopter that floats above the New England waters and races to any call for help, but the agency has a fleet of helicopters, an airplane and ground ambulances to meet its mission across the region. 

photo courtesy of the first responders

Catherine Graham was born in Falmouth, raised in Sandwich, and now lives in Mashpee. She’s one of the essential team members on Boston MedFlight as a Critical Care Transport Nurse. She started her career as a nurse 16 years ago in the Burn Intensive Care Unit at Mass General in Boston. Her love for helping people grew. “I have always enjoyed taking care of very sick people,” says Graham. “I find the medicine very challenging as well as rewarding. Transport medicine, in particular, is very interesting, with practical and logistical challenges that are not present in the hospital setting.” She bounces around from airport to airport, seeing as Boston MedFlight can launch helicopters from any of their four bases in Massachusetts. But when the summer hits, she knows she’ll be returning to her home community to answer the call for help. “The Cape is a geographically isolated region, especially in the summertime, and that’s why Boston MedFlight is an important asset for the residents of Cape Cod and the Islands,” says Graham. “I feel an immense sense of pride to be a Cape Cod resident and to work alongside other Cape Cod residents.”  

That includes working with people like Matthew James, who lives in Hyannis and spends much of his time working with Boston MedFlight as the Lead EMT. He helps manage the day-to-day operations of the Ground Transport Program and provides medical care to patients alongside a team of nurses and paramedics. Like many in his field, he followed a career that began in local fire departments and private ambulance companies before ending up at Boston MedFlight. “Being able to apply the information and skills to benefit the people who live and vacation in the community I grew up in is pretty unique,” James says. “I know that each person we care for is getting the best possible care in what is typically the worst time of their lives,” he adds. “It is always in the back of your mind that you may know the person you are coming to provide care to, or that you may know their family members. There’s always that small thought of, where are all my family members, are they OK?”

photo courtesy of the first responders

Boston MedFlight is one of the rare air medical transport companies in the nation that is nonprofit. CEO Maura Hughes says she spends much of her time fundraising. “People ask me all the time why we’re asking for money,” says Hughes. “Boston MedFlight is a nonprofit organization and cares for patients regardless of their insurance or financial status. We provide over $4 million a year in free and unreimbursed care and rely on charitable contributions to support our mission. It’s been our mission to help, whether a patient can pay the bill or not.”

Every member of the Boston MedFlight team will tell you they are one part of the bigger puzzle when it comes to how rescuers respond to someone’s time of need. It’s usually the team on the ground that calls for the helicopter. It’s a first responder comradery that’s hard to match, says Dennis Fire Chief Mark Dellner. Dellner came out of the Army in 1975, and at the age of 19, he says he never expected to be a firefighter, let alone become a fire chief one day. “I remember a friend of mine joking with me that animals, mice, bugs and people try to get out of buildings on fire and firefighters run into them. That was enough of a challenge for a 19-year-old kid,” Dellner says. Now, 44 years later, Dellner is every bit as passionate and hungry to help other people. “I just try to make sure our people do the job safer, with better knowledge and technology with the dangers of today’s environment,” he says. In 2018, the Dennis Fire Department answered more than 5,400 calls, an increase from 2017. Dellner says they’re busy all year long, not just when they see the sudden influx of visitors in the summer months. The men and women in his department cover a population of about 14,000 people, which swells to about 65,000 in the summer months. Through the growth and change of Cape Cod, Chief Dellner says he’s still as passionate as he was on day one. “The calls I find the most rewarding are when our firefighters come out of a burning fire and make a great stop on a structure fire,” says Dellner. “While structure fires are on the decrease nationwide, including Cape Cod, fires in today’s buildings burn with a greater intensity and with higher temperatures. These fires are even more dangerous and unpredictable.”

While the Yarmouth Police Department is still reeling from the death of K-9 officer Sean Gannon (second from left) in 2018, Chief Frank Frederickson says the community’s continued support is having a lasting impact on him and his team.
photo courtesy of the first responders

Few first responders have seen a wave of change like Yarmouth Police Chief Frank Frederickson has. Frederickson started as a summer officer in Yarmouth in 1977 and is now approaching his 40th year working full-time with the department. He got into law enforcement after watching his dad and other relatives as police officers. “I watched them all growing up and felt it. The one thing my father told me not to be was a police officer,” recalls Chief Frederickson. Like many, he did not follow parental advice—he could never fight that urge to join the thin blue line. Throughout the years, he’s seen significant change in how people treat the police and how police respond. When he talks about the perspectives on law enforcement from those who don’t wear the badge, his passion is palpable. “It’s a fast-changing environment, and you have to be on the top of your game. An event across the country can change what you do here in an instant. There’s a challenge to find good officers because the pool of candidates has dwindled in the last few years—not just here on the Cape but everywhere,” says Frederickson. “There’s been a lot of angst toward policing. Social media has highlighted the dangers we encounter and has pushed candidates and their families away from policing.” 

Those dangers were revealed in the most tragic and heartbreaking of ways in April of 2018, when one of Chief Frederickson’s officers was killed. Sean Gannon, 32, was shot and killed while attempting to serve a warrant at a home in Marstons Mills. Gannon, a police K-9 officer, was well known on Cape Cod, and the outpouring of support continues to come in. “I have seen the best in people, and it’s been so refreshing and overwhelming at times,” Frederickson says. “It has changed me. I constantly worry about the Gannon family and my officers. Their loss has been more.” Chief Fredrickson hopes that a newfound respect is born out of the tragedy so that citizens and lawmakers make sure that police officers are getting the support they need. “In spite of all the negatives and job stresses over the past 40 years, I still have a passion to come to work every single day because I love my job,” says Frederickson. “Cape Cod is such a supportive community, and I have seen Cape Cod pour out their hearts to us. We owe them the very best policing can give. I love being here and love being a police officer.”

photo courtesy of the first responders

Blair Miller

An Emmy Award-winning journalist, Blair Miller can be seen at the anchor desk weekdays at 4 p.m. on Boston 25 News. He lives in Scituate with his husband and their two children.