By Ruth Cummins
Bert “Bo” Sullivan was a University of Mississippi Medical Center emergency room charge nurse who had seen it all during overseas military duty with the Mississippi Air National Guard.
So when an opportunity presented itself early in Sullivan’s career to fly traumatically ill and injured patients not just from the battlefield, but from the far corners of Mississippi, he didn’t hesitate. “I was already in the National Guard. I was already doing it,” the veteran flight nurse said.
Sullivan’s workplace transitioned to AirCare, which had just become UMMC’s new medical helicopter transport. He’s the lone original member of AirCare’s Flying Quartet, bringing care to patients wherever they are, be it on the side of the interstate, in the midst of tornado damage or at a small community hospital that needs a critically ill person transported to a larger facility.
He became an EMT in 1983, became a combat/ flight medic after joining the Guard and obtained his nursing degree in 1987.
The Richland resident is retiring at the end of the month, joining the original crew: flight nurse and paramedic Todd Perry and newborn transport nurses Cathy Delaney and Jamie Miller. The first AirCare helicopter made its maiden flight on Feb. 2, 1996.
Sullivan retired in 2017 as a lieutenant colonel and chief flight nurse with 33 years’ service in the 183rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. “Operation Just Cause, Panama; Operation Desert Storm, Saudi Arabia; Operation Restore Hope, Somalia; Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iran and Afghanistan,” he said to put into context the wars in which he served and the hundreds of soldiers he attended. That’s in addition to serving throughout this country.
AirCare flight registered nurse Michael David, a crew member since 2011, says Sullivan is a “sentimental public servant” who would “give you anything he has.
“He’s been a leader everywhere he’s been,” David said. “What we will lose when he leaves is the experience he has. He’s been a mentor and trainer. He’s a cornerstone for us.”
That’s echoed by Jeremy Benson, an AirCare critical care paramedic who now serves as emergency transport manager. “Words cannot describe the impact Bo Sullivan has had on Mississippi with over 26 years of experience and dedication to the AirCare helicopter transport program alone,” Benson said. “His level of expertise and class cannot be matched and will be truly missed within our program.”
Dr. Chet Shermer, professor of emergency medicine and AirCare’s medical director, has seen Sullivan at work for the past eight years. When AirCare brings in a patient, the flight crew rolls them into the Emergency Department and personally transitions their care.
“That patient belongs to Bo and his teammates,” Shermer said. “He and his team provide a very succinct report of what happened to the patient at the previous ER, or even the side of the road.
“If the medical team in the ED doesn’t listen to them for 10 seconds, they can miss an incredible amount of information. Bo wants to make sure that everything is conveyed.”
Sullivan said he didn’t plan to become a flight nurse. “I was lucky in the way it fell,” he said. “Being a flight nurse seemed easy, and I was already in emergency medicine – and I like flying.”
His coworkers cite his calm demeanor, penchant for joking around and laser focus on the welfare of his patients among his top attributes. That’s in addition to being their teacher and mentor.
“We’re comfortable with each other. We don’t have to talk a whole lot. We know from each other’s body language who’s going to do what,” said critical care paramedic Kaci David, whose sole partner during her six years with AirCare has been Sullivan.
“He’s the same age as my dad, so it’s like a daughter-dad relationship,” said Kaci, who is married to Michael David.
Sullivan and his team can recall any number of close shaves, tragic accidents and success stories over the years. So often, it was Sullivan who kept the crew on task and used the experience as a teachable moment.
“There was one instance where the pilot was new, and when he took off, he immediately punched into the clouds and couldn’t see where he was going,” Sullivan remembered.
“He got a little disoriented and started running away from a red power light – except we weren’t near one. It was a reflection on the clouds. I told him to trust his instruments, and he calmed down and figured out where he was.”
He remembers the horrific Newton County accident in October 2016 that killed three people and injured seven. An F-150 truck ran into the back of a trailer loaded with kids and adults celebrating Halloween.
“The cases that are really traumatic stick with you the most. You have to put it in a box and keep pushing on,” he said.
In the years before AirCare had significant diagnostic equipment, Michael David said, Sullivan “would have a gut feeling that something was going on with a patient, and what could go wrong with a treatment plan. Often, he was right.”
Sullivan said he’s seen medical air transport change “by leaps and bounds. We started out with a limited amount of protocols.” That evolved into procedures such as placement of chest tubes, intubating patients, and “having the right medicines aboard for the right patients.
“So much trauma knowledge comes from war and how you handle it there,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan and Kaci David pulled night shifts. “It worked well for me when the kids were growing up,” he said. “I’d do my Guard stuff during the day. I prefer the nights. It tends to be a little more exciting.”
What he will miss most about Sullivan is his “get it done, and get it done right attitude,” said flight registered nurse Paul Boackle, who has known Sullivan since 1997 and who joined AirCare’s crew in 2007.
Sullivan encouraged him to go to nursing school and to join his Guard unit, Boackle said. “He brought his vision of exceptional patient care from AirCare to the military, and he taught me that you use one job to make the other better,” Boackle said.
Sullivan will miss his coworkers. He will miss saving lives.
“The nurses in AirCare are the best of the best. This is one job where you can see miracles happen every day,” Sullivan said. “It’s not because of what you know, or what you do. It’s because someone is guiding your hands.
He looks forward to making more memories with his wife Kim and children Ellen Carol and Major.
“It’s a God-given talent that I was given,” Sullivan said. “But it’s time to quit doing these long shifts and get back to my family.”
Sullivan’s legacy is clear.
“He helped train most of the AirCare crews over the years, so I don’t think the quality will go down by any means,” Shermer said. “Even in this point in his career, he continues to learn and tries every day to be better. That’s the mark of a professional.”