Critical care nursing and flying planes demand ability

A UCHealth nurse’s quiet confidence helps in the ICU and in the skies.
January 30th, 2019
pilot sits in cockpit of small plane
Captain Lydia Baldwin in the cockpit, ready for takeoff. Photo by Andrew Kensley, for UCHealth.

On a brisk, cloudless November morning at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, airplane captain Lydia Baldwin muscles open the dented aluminum hangar doors.

“There she is,” she exclaims. “Ever flown in a small one of these before?”

Baldwin enlists the help of her passenger to manually tow the plane out. She walks around the single-engine Piper Cherokee that looks in surprisingly good shape for a 46-year-old model. “Still got a lot of life in her,” she says with a chuckle.

First she inspects the lights. Then the fuel levels in each wing, checking the bluish tint and scanning for any sediments or water mixed in. “We have gauges that tell us fuel levels,” she says, “But you know, a gauge is just a gauge.”

She runs her hand along the flaps, ailerons and tail for any abnormalities, deliberately and with a measure of compassion. Once inside the snug cockpit, she perspicaciously reviews a checklist, item by item, in what sounds like a foreign dialect.

“Airspeed indicator. Magnetic compass. Vertical speed indicator. Switch panel is off except the beacon. Heat defrost, tachometer. Carb heat off. Circuit breakers all in. Flaps, rudder trim, stabilator trim. Auto pilot off. Oil pressure and mixture.”

She shows her passenger how to work the seat belt, and points out the fire extinguisher and the airsickness bags. “If you’re uncomfortable with anything, let me know,” she says. “Or just ask.”

Thumbs-up.

After a short taxi to runway 3-3, Cherokee 1-5-6-Niner-5 alights into the airspace above “NoCo Regional.” At that moment it becomes clear that the qualities that make Baldwin a competent pilot are the very same that help this registered nurse steer UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit through the turbulence of critical care.

Importance of processes

Whether improving lives or flying to visit her mother in New Mexico, Baldwin understands the importance of processes.

nurse stands in ICU unit
Lydia Baldwin, UCHealth ICU manager. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

“I use checklists to help remove emotion from decisions,” Baldwin says. “With complex skills like flying an airplane or managing an emergency situation in health care, it’s crucial to be able to reflect on yourself and how you’re navigating the situation.”

Baldwin has been a practicing nurse for 19 years, most of which were spent tending to critically ill patients in the ICU. As a manager for 10 years, her leadership style is well-received by her employees and peers.

“Lydia works hard to make sure we’re not only satisfied at work but that we take care of ourselves as well,” says Megan Tschacher, an ICU nurse who has worked under Baldwin for a decade.

Trusting processes

Critical care nursing and flying planes demand an ability to perform numerous simultaneous tasks while staying calm in stressful situations. The 50-year-old Baldwin is able to compartmentalize those challenges with self-confidence — and by trusting those around her.

“Both flying and nursing focus on safety precautions, preparations, training and redundancies,” Baldwin points out. “In the ICU we do scenarios and mock-ups all the time so when we’re faced with a situation we have some reliability with performance. At work I know the environment, the team, the language and the purpose, and so it’s not scary. It can be sad or disappointing if the outcome is loss of life but — and it’s the same with flying — more experience has given me more confidence.”

Baldwin constantly scans for everything from storm clouds to dangerous heart rhythms that lurk over the horizon, and asks, “What do we need to do about that?” And yet, gliding over the unbounded atmosphere provides a sense of calm, as well as perspective on managing people and situations that often are out of her control.

“I know that somebody maintains this runway and the weather information channel on the radio, and all the pieces have a system,” Baldwin explains. “All my staff in the ICU know what they’re supposed to do. Part of my role is to anticipate things so that we don’t have barriers.”

nurse stands in ICU room
Lydia Baldwin, UCHealth ICU manager. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Keeping your cool

Tschacher, who has also flown with her boss, sees on a daily basis Baldwin’s quiet confidence evince itself in productive ways.

“Lydia always seems to stay calm. She expects us to follow processes designed to care for our patients, but trusts us to be able to make our own decisions,” Tschacher says. “When we do something wrong, instead of honing in on the mistake she’ll work around the problem to see what we can do to make the process flow smoother or work better.”

Luckily, the 45-minute aerial tour of Northern Colorado goes as smoothly as a dose of medication running through an IV line. Humming along at 85 knots (around 97 mph) and 2,000 feet above terra firma in a cockpit the approximate size of a bathtub, Baldwin holds the yoke gently as she banks toward A-Mountain. She points out all the vital signs of the regional landscape: Colorado State University’s football stadium, PVH and UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies, the drive-in movie theater, Fort Collins City Park, and Pikes Peak in the distance.

“Being off the ground in a machine is magical and awe-inspiring,” says the captain.

pilot stands at front of small plane
Lydia Baldwin and her Piper Cherokee 1-5-6-Niner-5 at outside her hanger at Northern Colorado Regional Airport. Photo by Andrew Kensley, for UCHealth.

Growth through inspiration

Inspired by her nearly 80-year-old mother, who became certified to fly at the age of 60, Baldwin flies for pleasure around northern Colorado, with regional trips to Steamboat Springs and to visit her family. But her biggest enjoyment comes from competing in air races with a cohort of other female pilots from around the country, including her mother.

“About 20 years ago I went to see my family at the start of the Air Race Classic in Bozeman, Montana, and I thought, ‘Look at all these cool women getting together and doing this amazing adventure.’ I want to do that,” she says excitedly. Within a year she earned her pilot’s license.

While Baldwin admits she’s no adrenaline junkie, both flying and caring for patients still give her enough of a thrill. She likes the challenge of learning “how and what” and constantly seeks out ways to do better.

“Flying is not something most people do,” she says. “It’s gratifying to know that I can die going up there, but I want to know how to prevent it, and to know that I did it myself.”

About the author

Andrew Kensley has worked as a freelance writer in northern Colorado since 2009. In addition to his work for UCHealth, he is a regular contributor of essays, features and the News & Notes section of Fort Collins Magazine. He also has written numerous cover profiles, Q&As, and travel and wellness features for Mind+Body Magazine and the Fort Collins Coloradoan, the newspaper in which his parenting column, “Wee Wisdom,” ran Sundays from 2009 to 2013. His travel essays have been featured in the family travel website, Momaboard.com.  

Andrew published his first novel, “Seeking Blue,” in 2014, and his short fiction has appeared in the University of Wyoming’s literary journal, Owen Wister Review.

Andrew was born in Montreal, Canada, and has lived in Fort Collins since 2004. A 1996 graduate of McGill University, he continues to work as a physical therapist, helping people regain their mobility, confidence, and functional abilities. He speaks French, Spanish and Hebrew, and loves to travel.