It’s a little before 5 on a late June afternoon when Garrett McCarthy ’13 climbs out of a Learjet 35 at Aurora Municipal Airport just outside Chicago.
He’s been up since dawn and traveled more than 2,300 miles at 500 miles per hour as a flight medic in the tight confines of the AeroCare Air Ambulance. Even the descent from 40,000 feet was fast—the Lear still has frost on its wings.
McCarthy is smiling.
“This was a pretty easy mission, actually,” he explains. “Our patient was a one-year-old boy from Colorado whose pulmonary artery had been obstructing his trachea, and the surgery to put in a tracheal splint is done at the University of Michigan. He was returning home to Denver with his mom after being only the 17th person to have this operation.
“I was watching his heart rate, respiration, making sure he was getting oxygen to his tissues. He was pretty relaxed. His mom said he hadn’t ever breathed as easily he had this week, so that’s great.”
Combining aviation and medical care has been McCarthy’s goal since he was a boy, but it hasn’t been a straight path.
“My dad was an aviator, one of the first helicopter pilots for the Chicago Fire Department, and that was my dream. That’s all I wanted to do. My dad’s deal with me was, ‘You can do whatever you want, as long as you go to college first.’
“I looked at schools all over.” McCarthy smiles. “But I didn’t know what to study to get on at the Chicago Fire Department to fly helicopters.”
His dream faded after his dad died during McCarthy’s senior year in high school.
“That kind of changed everything—it was a really tough time.”
The Wabash cross-country team appeared seemingly out of the blue.
“I was running cross-country in high school, and I got this long heartfelt card from the Wabash team, signed by all of them. Here I was, an 18-year-old who just lost his dad, wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go, and I get this card in the mail. Seemed like good guys. There were no strings attached to it—just saying ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you.’
“I looked at that and thought, Hey this is where I need to be. These guys are my kind of people.”
McCarthy majored in psychology, focusing on the developmental aspect of neuroscience and working with Professor Karen Gunther and her research on color vision.
“I found my niche, and it kind of tied into my work.”
That work at first being his part-time gig as a Putnam County (IN) emergency medical technician, his way of keeping alive that dream of following his father’s career path.
New York City and the clothing design business was McCarthy’s first stop after his Wabash Commencement, but soon he was back to his first love, joining the New York EMS, then at an EMS mentoring program at Dartmouth.
Today he’s a full-time member of the Chicago Fire Department and works for AeroCare on his days off.
“We do a lot of intensive care transfers here, and many of our patients are stroke patients, many have trauma—my neuropsychology background adds depth to my understanding of it all.”
He’s also studying to be a helicopter pilot, and hopes to be licensed in fixed-wing aircraft after that.
“My passions are aviation and helping people, and this work brings them both together. Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to fly the aircraft or work in the back, wherever I’m needed.”
The engines on the Learjet 35 Garrett McCarthy ’13 travels in as a flight medic for AeroCare were originally made by Garrett Manufacturing.
Not at all.
Back in 1990, McCarthy’s father was flying a Lear Jet when he and Garrett’s mother were discussing names for their soon-to-be born son.
He looked down at the instrument cluster and saw “Garrett” printed on one of the gauges.
“And that’s how I was named,” McCarthy smiles. “This is a different plane, but it’s near and dear to me—it’s the one I’ve spent most of my hours in since I’ve been a flight medic.”