Life Lion: Saving Lives One Ride at a Time

As a helicopter mechanic, Brian Sauselen never dreamed that his first ride on a Dauphin helicopter would be as a patient, with little memory of the experience.

But as a diabetic suffering sudden, severe abdominal pain that was quickly diagnosed as pancreatitis, Brian does know that the Life Lion medical transport from a Reading hospital to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center saved his life.

“When they said they had to fly me, I knew it was serious,” he said. Although it was just a ten-minute ride, he remembers thinking, “Why is this taking so long? It seemed like forever.”

The next thing he recalls is waking up three weeks later in Penn State Hershey Medical Center’s Surgical ICU. At one point, his condition became so fragile that last rites were administered.

Brian spent two months in the hospital, followed by six weeks in long- and short-term rehabilitation. During that time, he underwent several surgeries, lost nearly 100 pounds, missed the birth of his fourth child, the death of the family dog, had to relearn to walk, underwent dialysis, and went home with a PIC line and feeding tube.

But he survived. A year later, Brian has not only made a full recovery. He’s also living a much healthier lifestyle, eating right, and exercising regularly.

The experience has changed his life. “Without Life Lion and (trauma surgeon) Dr. Galvan, I probably would not be here today,” he said. “Before this happened, I had the attitude – it will never happen to me. Now I don’t take anything for granted any more.”

His wife Jamie, who drove two hours every single day to be with him at the hospital and throughout rehabilitation – despite a new baby, working, and raising three other children – simply said,” I thought he was never going to meet the baby.”

She added, “I’m thankful that he’s made a complete turnaround. Although it wasn’t good to go through, I’m thankful for that whole year. It brought us closer to God and closer as a family. It made us even more thankful for the things we have, for each other.”

Brian and Jamie have nothing but the highest praise for Life Lion, Dr. Dan A. Galvan and his team, along with all the nurses, doctors and staff at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

Life Lion, in particular, plays a memorable role in this family’s medical saga. During a recent Doctor Appreciation Day, their seven-year-old son Scott sent a poignant card he’d made showing a picture of a helicopter, with Brian being lowered to a medical center caregiver and Dr. Galvan on the ground saying “I will save you.” At the top of the card, Scott wrote “Thank you Dr. Galvan.”

Stories like this are common for the Life Lion team. “People are really grateful for the care they receive, and so many have come to the hangar to visit, bring a lasagna they baked or make a donation for a specialty piece of equipment,” said Lynn Doherty, R.N., nurse manager and program manager for Life Lion, adding, “The complexity of patients we care for is amazing. Our crews can take care of anyone, from small neonatal patients to adults on heart and lung bypass.”

As one of the oldest and most prestigious transport systems in the country, Life Lion is an integrated ground, flight, and EMS program that transports critically ill patients to medical centers across the region. While Life Lion covers more than 3,000 square miles in central Pennsylvania, the team travels wherever it is called, even going as far as Boston, New York, and New Jersey.

Started in 1970, the flight portion is also one of the oldest programs in the nation. It is one of approximately twenty flight programs nationwide that is owned and run by a hospital: in this case, Penn State Hershey Medical Center. By contrast, most of the 300 flight programs in the U.S. are run independently as private companies.

This combination – being an integrated air, ground, and EMS system owned and operated by a prestigious medical center – is what sets Life Lion apart. According to Doherty, a typical flight crew consists of a flight medic, critical care nurse, and pilot. Because the program is part of a Medical Center, there is extensive continuing education and a close, collaborative relationship between the transport team and hospital units.

“If you’re critically ill in central Pennsylvania and need to be flown to a medical center to save your life, but bad weather means you can’t fly, we can still get a ground crew to you that will provide the same level of care as the back of our helicopter,” said Thomas E. Terndrup, M.D., F.A.C.E.P., F.A.A.E.M., ’81, chair of the emergency medicine department.

He added, “You don’t have to go far to get name recognition. Life Lion is the most visible name of Penn State Hershey Medical Center.”

Dr. Terndrup credits the staff for building this national reputation, noting that “many people have worked here since the program started, and they created this strength and reputation for quality work.”

This national respect drew the attention of Jeffrey S. Lubin, M.D., who left University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland to move here and become division chief of Life Lion.

He’s also helped to revitalize a fellowship in emergency medical services (EMS) to train EMS physicians, putting Penn State at the forefront of this growing field of medicine. Just recently, EMS physicians became eligible for board certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

The physicians and staff of Life Lion are deeply involved in training emergency medicine and EMS physicians for the future. One in six medical students at Penn State College of Medicine is a member of the Emergency Medicine Interest Group, which offers research, education, and clinical exposure to Life Lion and the emergency department.

“Even at the university level, emergency medicine continues to be an important part of the Penn State curriculum,” said Dr. Terndrup. Dr. Lubin added, “We’re trying to make sure that all medical students get a taste of emergency medicine. We think it’s an important aspect for all future providers, to see EMS in some form.”

Contrary to popular opinion, Life Lion is not exclusively a feeder for Penn State Hershey Medical Center. “Our primary mission is to take sick people wherever they need to go,” said Dr. Lubin. “We have a group of very smart, talented, and slightly aggressive caregivers who do that.

“They take care of people on the sickest days of their lives.”

Click here to read additional stories on the Penn State College of Medicine Alumni Update.