Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill.
On a stormy spring night at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., Coast Guardsmen stood watch, ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Following a busy afternoon of searching for two missing boaters, the evening was accompanied by nothing more than the occasional crackle of a VHF-FM radio.
Around 8 p.m. a call came in from cruise ship, 150 miles east of Cape Lookout, N.C. A 50-year-old man suffered a heart attack and needed to get to a hospital. It was operations normal for most; another chance to save a life. However, for one junior petty officer, this case was far from the norm. He would be setting out on his first rescue since earning his spot as the Coast Guard rescue swimmer No. 830.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Steve Scheren, fresh out of rescue swimmer school, had spent the last year training for this moment. After completing the 12-week, prerequisite airman program, he began his 16-week rescue swimmer school in Elizabeth City, where he beat attrition rates averaging 50 percent and peaking at 80 percent.
As Scheren grabbed his gear and ran toward the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, he was confident he could save this 50-year-old man’s life.
“I wasn’t trying to think of it as a first rescue,” said Scheren. “I was just thinking about my training and the procedures and protocols that I’d been taught.”
Crews aboard an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and an HC-130 Hercules airplane took off from the air station and headed out over the Atlantic Ocean as the sun began to fade over the horizon. At approximately 9:30 p.m., the Hercules crew hailed the cruise ship and began to discuss their plans.
“Most Elizabeth City swimmers’ first rescue seems to be a cruise ship medevac,” said Scheren. “The procedure for getting people off [a ship] is pretty standard, unless you have unfavorable weather conditions. You’re going to follow a pretty simple plan.”
As the helicopter came to a hover off the port side of the cruise ship, Scheren realized how calm the conditions felt, speaking to the seasoned pilot’s ability to stabilize the aircraft in 20-mph winds.
As the flight mechanic connected the helicopter’s hook to Scheren’s harness and said “load check complete,” the only thing on his mind was making contact with the medical personnel and getting to the patient. Once Scheren made contact with the doctor, he was led inside the ship where he first saw the survivor who was conscious and in stable condition.
“I wanted him to feel comfortable with me,” Scheren said. “I wanted to put him at ease and not cause him any more stress than necessary.”
The man was rolled onto the deck of the ship, an area providing a level and open platform for the gurney to be positioned beside the litter. Scheren and some of the ship’s crew grabbed the sheet beneath the survivor and transferred the man onto the litter, where the spotlight of the helicopter greeted them.
Scheren gave a thumbs up to the awaiting flight mechanic in the helicopter 30 feet above him. As the survivor rose above Scheren’s head, he took a moment to absorb what was going on around him.
“This was my first time hoisting a live person in the litter,” said Scheren. “I was a bit nervous, but I had a trail line, which allowed me to keep total control.”
The hook was lowered one final time and Scheren once again clipped it into his harness before dangling beneath the aircraft for 10 seconds surrounded by complete darkness.
Once in the helicopter, the door was closed, and Scheren hooked up equipment to the patient, giving him continuous readouts of the patient’s vitals, crucial for the hospital staff. Scheren’s heart finally began to slow and his nerves began to calm as the survivor cracked a joke.
After nine hours of combined flight time that day, the Jayhawk crew landed back at the air station. Plans had changed, and due to the duration of the flight, the crew met their maximum allowed flight time, requiring a crew change with the helicopter’s engines running.
The back-up crew jumped into the helicopter and flew toward Sentara Norfolk General Hospital where the heart-attack victim was safely delivered.
“You spend so long training, hearing instructors yell ‘so others may live,’ it’s nice to really feel that you’re living your creed,” said Scheren. “I’ve got a son and a wife at home that I love very much. Knowing that someone else is going to have a loved one that I was able to help is a very special thing.”