CHINLE -- After just a few minutes of observation, it was obvious that the Eagle Air Med team attending a Sept. 13 breakfast meeting in Chinle's Junction Restaurant was more like a family than a group of co-workers.
Joseph Hunt, the president of the corporation based in Blanding, Utah, blended right in with the group as friendly chatter preceded business. The air of camaraderie continued throughout the day as Matthew Smith, a Navajo flight paramedic, worked through a busy schedule.
Chinle is one of three bases for Eagle Air Med--fixed wing flights also depart from Kayenta and Window Rock--a company that has provided emergency transport for more than 20 years--and more than 20,000 flights.
Smith likes his work--a lot. As he prepped Marketing Manager Eric Niven, for a demonstration flight from behind a Navajo Nation ambulance into the Beechcraft King Air jet, he talked proudly of the equipment he and team members (Pilot Ed Perry and Flight Nurse/Chinle Base Manager Ernie Aughe) used throughout the simulation. As the team wheeled Niven up into the plane--"the Cadillac of the skies," according to both Smith and Perry--Navajo Nation paramedics looked on, amused.
Once nestled in the plane, Smith displayed an MRL PIC-50 monitor capable of providing blood pressure and oxygen saturation. Through intubation, the team can monitor each beat of a heart--important for patients with severe heart conditions.
"Any fluctuation in the heart rhythm can be picked up immediately," Smith said.
Niven, nestled in a comfortable thermal life blanket, could not resist providing information as well.
"Smith was the Navajo Nation paramedic of the year in 2003," Niven said.
Smith, who did allow that he was one of only about 485 registered flight paramedics, brushed this aside."There are so many of us doing stuff that are not getting awards," Smith said.
"The paramedics of the Navajo Nation are always willing to pick us up and assist with critical patients," he continued, indicating the two Chinle Service Unit paramedics preparing to leave the airstrip below. "I am also grateful to Henry Wallace, an old boss, who has helped the Navajo Nation grow a good organization. I feel bad leaving the nation, and I thank him a lot for allowing me to grow."
Released from his gurney, Niven and Smith settled into seats for takeoff. As the King Air followed the snakelike curves of Canyon de Chelly, Smith spoke of his love for Chinle.
"I travel all over for training purposes and to deliver patients," Smith said. "But every time I fly over that ridge out there, I feel like I am coming home."
The plane flew over Spider Rock and White House ruins as Niven and Smith discussed a visit to Deborah Watson's fourth grade class at Chinle Elementary School. Minutes later, Niven introduced Smith to the children.
One child asked Smith whether his job was scary.
"Everything is scary at first," Smith responded. "But it is also fun. It is fun to meet people and to take care of them."
Smith also told students that although he has served as a paramedic for 10 years, he has never stopped learning.
"If you stop learning, you stop growing," Smith said.
Smith shared some of the interesting things about his job that he needed to learn.
"How many of you have gone down in a swimming pool and felt your ears pop?" Smith asked. "That is the change in air pressure. When you go up in the sky, the air pressure changes and you have more pressure in your head than outside.
"Why did you become a paramedic in the first place?" asked a visitor to the classroom.
"My father (Willliam Smith Jr. ) was the first fire chief in Chinle. When I was 13, I started running rescue with him, and in high school, I was responding out of class," Smith said. "I was fascinated by the Ranger medic, but I hurt myself playing football, requiring a total knee construction."
This injury kept him out of the military, but not out of service to the community he grew up in.
Smith concluded the visit by advising students to work on their dreams now.
"Just try. Never stop trying. Go where you want to go," Smith said.
Smith's next stop was the Chinle Hospital emergency room, where he met up with Dennis Charley, EMS Supervisor.
"He is one of the best paramedics we had," Charley said of Smith. "He provides good leadership to his coworkers, and is always looking over them, teaching them."
Charley spoke of some of the challenges facing on ground emergency response.
"We have guys on call out to Rock Point, back up in Pinon, out in Dinebito and Whipporwill. The biggest challenge is road conditions, but we get a lot of help from law enforcement and the Hopi Tribe."
Charley has worked with Emergency Medical Services for 16 years, and as a supervisor for eight of them.
Richard Blackburn, an Emergency Room Nursing Supervisor, spoke highly of Eagle Air Med.
"It's really nice to have someone you can count on 24/seven, 24 hours a day, no matter what the weather. These guys are part of the community," Blackburn said. He remembered an incident where he saw a nurse he didn't recognize leaning over a patient--it was one of Eagle Air Med's nurses who had arrived at an incident site and stayed with a patient all the way through admittance.
"It's like having another team here in the emergency room," Blackburn said. "Their crew is a real help to us.
Johanna Bahe, a House Supervisor, also spoke highly of Eagle Air and of Smith.
"He really does good work. He's a very good paramedic, he's very knowledgeable. He helps us out here a lot. He worked with our EMS before Eagle Air, and he's one of the best we've ever had. He's really very caring about his patients."
Smith insisted that despite his impressive list of awards, including the Eagle Air Med Person of the Year--a surprise as he is now only in his second year of employment with the company--there are many out there who deserve the same recognition. He modestly pointed out that he has made his share of errors.
"I've made my mistakes, but I haven't run from them," he said as he sat in a jeep on a plateau overlooking his beloved Chinle. "I love my job, and am happy to be working here in Chinle, where I can be a help to my children."
Back at Eagle Air Med's housing and equipment shed, one team was up in the air. Though the spot had been a lively hub earlier in the afternoon, it was now quiet. Smith climbed from the jeep and called in to dispatch to place him back on call. A day in the life of Matthew Smith proved that he is not only helpful to his children, but to the community he calls home.