Jan 01, 2011
By David McDonald

An entrepreneurial spirit soars

Despite a fear of flying, Gail Courneyea found her passion and began her own aeromedical transport service

It was not something Gail Courneyea wanted to hear. One day in 1986, she went into the Peterborough, Ont., hospital where she worked as a critical care nurse and was told she’d be accompanying a patient on a flight to Toronto. “I would have been happy to stay with my feet planted firmly on the ground for the rest of my life,” she confesses. “I had a real fear of flying.”

Teckles Photography Inc.After extensive training in air medicine, Gail Courneyea launched Angels of Flight Canada Inc. in 1988.

Remarkably, Courneyea’s resolve to confront her fear that day would lead to the creation of a diverse, multimillion-dollar medical transport business. But that was perhaps the furthest thought from her mind as the small, underequipped plane trundled down the runway at Peterborough Airport.

The flight to Toronto wasn’t too bad. The young man in Courneyea’s care happened to know a fair bit about flying, and he was able to talk her through each little bump and rattle, each ominous-sounding exchange between pilot and co-pilot.

The return was a different story. Without a patient to distract her, the turbulent 20-minute flight seemed interminable. “I was terrified,” she admits.

When the plane finally landed, the pilot said nonchalantly, “We’ll see you again.” “Not likely!” a shaken Courneyea muttered to herself.

But several months later, she got another call to accompany a patient by plane. “It was then I realized this was the way the Ministry of Health was moving,” she says. “If I was going to continue in the ICU, it meant I would be flying.”

So when her local air ambulance service offered free ground school to six nurses, Courneyea signed up. The more she understood about planes and flying, she reasoned, the more comfortable she would feel in the air.

A little earthbound learning was to be the extent of it, but when Courneyea completed the course — the only one in her class to do so — she decided to test herself further by taking the requisite flight instruction for a pilot’s licence. It was a fish-out-of-water experience she describes as “frightening, but fascinating.”

For her final solo test, she arrived at the airport with a book hidden under her coat — it was an emergency survival manual. “I was trying to cover every base out there,” she laughs.

In 1987, Courneyea earned her private pilot’s licence. “I didn’t do it because I wanted to fly a plane,” she says. “I just wanted the knowledge.” She soon abandoned hands-on flying to concentrate on flight nursing.

As Courneyea struggled to tame her bête noire, she began to travel south periodically for training toward a certificate in aeromedical care. “Flight nursing was quite evolved in the U.S., but that wasn’t the case here at all,” she says.

That began to change in 1988, when Seneca College introduced a course in air medicine. Courneyea began to commute to Toronto for classes and continued to do so every week for a year. All this additional training came at her own expense.

The more she learned, the more her thoughts shifted from her own fears to those of her patients. “Imagine what it’s like when you’re really ill and you’re taken out of a comfortable environment. Maybe you’ve never been on a plane before,” she says. “That stress is further going to complicate your condition. So I thought if I could learn to address those factors, it would mean better outcomes for our patients.”

Courneyea decided she wanted to become a full-time flight nurse, so she approached the Ontario Ministry of Health, which ran the province’s air ambulance service. Sorry, she was told, no such job description. But if you’d care to go back to school and become a paramedic, we might have a position for you.

Courneyea bridled. After all, she had already undergone more specialized aeromedical training than any paramedic. In that case, her contact at the ministry suggested, she might consider offering her hard-won expertise directly to hospitals.

So Courneyea approached the staff at her own hospital in Peterborough and asked what they’d like to see in the way of air transport services. What they’d really like, they said, was to be able to call a single phone number, day or night, and have everything taken care of: air ambulance, appropriate equipment, properly trained RNs — the works.

Courneyea took the hint. And in December 1988, she took the plunge. “I found a passion,” she says of flight nursing, “so I had to create my own job.” At the age of 41, while still working part time in the ICU, she launched Angels of Flight Canada Inc. on a shoestring.

Courneyea’s first client was an American who’d fallen ill while visiting Ontario. She and another nurse accompanied him on a flight back to Boston. Within the year, she had signed her first institutional contracts, and she was able to give up her day job.

“Hospitals were saving money, patients were getting great care, and ICU nurses were no longer required to medevac without proper training,” she says. “Everybody was happy.”

Since those modest beginnings, Angels of Flight has arranged and staffed thousands of flights by air ambulance and commercial airline to locations within Canada and to 104 foreign countries — from Iran to the Philippines. Clients include hospitals, insurance companies and federal agencies as well as private individuals.

Over the years, Courneyea’s staff has grown to 43 full- and part-time employees. “They’re the key to everything,” she says. “You have to have committed, dedicated staff.”

On the nursing front, she seeks out prospective Angels who have flexible schedules and agile brains. “We look for people who perhaps work in smaller, outlying hospitals, who may be more used to doing things independently, because in this job, you have to be able to make quick decisions — proper decisions — on your own.”

Today, the company transports about 1,500 patients a year by air, and another 4,500 through its 10-vehicle, non-emergency land transportation subsidiary, which Courneyea started in 1995.

So what is Angels of Flight’s success rate in getting patients safely to their destinations? A remarkable 100 per cent. In its 22 years of operation, the company has never had a patient die in transit.

“It is amazing,” Courneyea concedes. “But we are very careful in the arrangements we make. We don’t just send ‘a crew,’ or ‘a nurse.’ We send the appropriate nurse, the appropriate medical team.”

Not that all the landings have been smooth. In one spectacularly unlucky year, Courneyea and company were involved in six accidents — all in air ambulances operated by the provincial Ministry of Health. Fortunately, everyone emerged unscathed. “We have a very strong safety program for our staff and our nurses,” she says. “Nobody flies unless they’ve gone through it.”

Over the years, Courneyea has guided her business into other areas. She added an educational wing to conduct training courses and organize conferences. This year, she moved into e-learning, providing online courses for medical personnel to improve patient outcomes and personal safety during aeromedical flights.

Through another subsidiary, Courneyea offers consulting services on international projects. “Instead of supplying nurses or doctors or ambulances,” she says, “we’re offering our expertise in aeromedical case management, ground transportation and health-care standards.”

Angels of Flight has also expanded its efforts in the burgeoning market of “medical tourism.” The company arranges medical procedures, travel and accommodations for patients who choose to go abroad for various treatments. “Not all international health-care options are safe,” she says. “Patients need to find high-quality facilities and reputable physicians and may need help attending to all the details of their trip. We offer door-to-door service and a choice of our aligned providers in many countries around the world.”

Courneyea is particularly proud of Global Angel, a philanthropic arm she started in memory of her 22-year-old daughter, Carole, a nursing student and a member of the Angels team, who died of leukemia in 1993. The charity assists financially challenged patients to get to a place of treatment — or to get home or to an event of special significance — after an illness or mishap. A high point for Global Angel came in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when the group was able to get several teams of Canadian and American doctors into the stricken country.

Now 63 and a grandmother, Courneyea has no regrets about the improbable course her career has taken. “I’ve had an amazing time,” she says. And one thing hasn’t changed for her since that first white-knuckled flight to Toronto: “I still respect the risks in such an unpredictable environment and will always put safety first!”

David McDonald an Ottawa Writer and Filmmaker.
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