SPRINGVILLE – Maria Stenzel, Brian Wilcox and Jim Havens have flown multiple calls with Mercy Flight. The flight nurse, flight paramedic and pilot, respectively, don’t remember each call they’ve been on, but they will never forget Jarred Heitzenrater.
Heitzenrater was driving to school in November 2016 when he hit a patch of ice and collided head-on into a tree. Gowanda, South Dayton and Dayton volunteer fire departments were on the scene, but called Mercy Flight to bring Heitzenrater to Erie County Medical Center.
“I remember walking up, seeing the truck and wondering why we were here,” Wilcox said. “I didn’t think [Heitzenrater] made it.”
Heitzenrater reunited with the flight crew on Feb. 2 at the Springville hangar. He hadn’t seen them since the accident, but has thought of them often.
“I remember little bits,” Heitzenrater said. “I remember [Stenzel] kept saying ‘stay with me’.”
Stenzel was lowered into the cab of the truck by two volunteer firefighters to assess the damage. She had saw bleeding, and on an 18 degree day was concerned about Heitzenrater getting too cold.
“I had to see how bad the impact was,” she said. “I just kept thinking of each task I had to do, one after another, to make sure he stayed with us.”
She still thinks of the two volunteers who lowered her into the truck, wishing she can personally thank them. Without them, she said, she wouldn’t have been able to work with Heitzenrater.
“The volunteer fire departments … are the unsung heroes,” Havens said. “They show up at the scene, they make the vital decision to call us. I think they don’t get the recognition they deserve.”
Heitzenrater is 20 years old now. Despite his injuries, which included a broken femur, he was able to walk across the stage at his Pine Valley Central School graduation just six months after the accident. He danced at his senior prom, though his prognosis was that he wouldn’t be walking so quickly.
“I remember waking up in the hospital with braces [on my legs],” he said. “I was expecting so much worse. I couldn’t feel my legs [at the scene] I thought I was paralyzed.”
Being able to meet his crew was emotional, but Heitzenrater was thankful for the reunion. Without them, and Mercy Flight, he said he wouldn’t have been alive.
“I love these. We love to see [patients] who recovered,” Havens said. “I’m just the pilot … I just get us from point a to point b as fast as I can.”
For Wilcox, Heitzenrater‘s accident hit a little too close to home. Though he didn’t know Heitzenrater personally, his mother is friends with Heitzenrater‘s mom. When he saw her on the scene, she made the connection.
“That brings it back home,” Wilcox said. “This was a unique situation for me.”
Wilcox has heard updates on Heitzenrater‘s progress since the accident, but the recent reunion was the first time he was able to see him. It reminded him there are always two sides to every emergency.
Mercy Flight’s motto is “When minutes matter,” and with a 19-minute flight from Gowanda to ECMC, Havens said Heitzenrater‘s accident is the perfect example of why the non-profit uses that saying.
“I don’t know … it would have taken 40 minutes,” Havens said. “The minutes really do matter.”
Kate Glaser, director of marketing and public affairs for Mercy Flight, said Heitzenrater requested the reunion and she was happy to make it happen. It was a “perfect circle” she said, after the flight crew told her about Heitzenrater shortly after she began working with Mercy Flight.
“I think it’s important to remind people … this is a non-profit,” Glaser said. “We rely on donations … to be able to do this.”
For more information on Mercy Flight, including how to donate, visit MercyFlight.org.