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Dreams Take Flight: One Woman’s Journey From Hershey Medical Patient To Flight Nurse

There are some moments in life that come full circle. No one knows this better than Stephanie Suzadail.

Seven years ago, Suzadail presented signs of an ischemic stroke — a type of stroke caused by a blockage of an artery that supplies blood to the brain — while in nursing school. A Hershey Medical Center helicopter flew her from Williamsport, Pa. to her hometown of Hershey for treatment.

Now, Suzadail, who is a flight nurse herself, flies in the same helicopter for Hershey Medical Center that she flew in as a patient all those years ago: Penn State Hershey LifeLion N611LL.

Suzadail started out in EMT school in 2007 before switching to Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC). She later attended LaSalle University first as a nursing major before switching to the pre-med track. However, due to medical reasons, Suzadail’s family had her switch to the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport.

Suzadail lived at a firehouse, working as a volunteer EMT while attending Penn Tech. During this time, she encountered many flight nurses who were coming from the nearest trauma center that was 45 minutes away.

Courtesy of Stephanie Suzadail

Suzadail always had the thought of becoming a flight nurse in the back of her mind but never imagined it would come to fruition. She initially started as a paramedicine major before switching to nursing after her first year.

One day, while in nursing school at Penn Tech and working as a patient care assistant on a stroke floor, Suzadail woke up with a tingling sensation in her left arm.

“I was like, ‘This is not usual for me. Maybe I just slept weird on it, like a pinched nerve or something,'” Suzadail said.

Twenty minutes later, while at work, Suzadail tried asking her supervisor about the tingling sensation in her arm but noticed the confused look on the supervisor’s face.

“I could feel my face just completely go numb and my words wouldn’t come out right,” Suzadail said. “I knew what I wanted to say in my head, and the words wouldn’t come out how I wanted…I couldn’t feel the entire left side of my body.”

From there, hospital staff rushed Suzadail to the emergency room and then in for a CT scan to ensure that she wasn’t experiencing a brain bleed. The emergency room doctors met with Williamsport neurologists for teleconsultation to determine how to proceed next.

Courtesy of Stephanie Suzadail

Given the risk factors Suzadail had, plus her high score from the stroke assessment the neurologists gave her, she was given two possibilities for what might have caused the numbness and tingling: a complicated migraine or a stroke.

The complicated migraine would resolve on its own. However, a stroke, if not treated, could have resulted in permanent loss of mobility. In the end, Suzadail received tPA — a clot-dissolving drug — and flew to Hershey Medical Center via helicopter.

Suzadail spent four to five days in the Hershey Medical Center neurological ICU, where she underwent multiple CT scans, MRIs, and occupational and physical therapy. In the end, the doctors ruled that it was potentially a hemiplegic migraine — a rare and serious type of migraine where the electricity in the brain is affected instead of occluded vessels; however, the symptoms mimic those of a stroke.

Suzadail said that she never had any neurological problems until she suffered a head injury from a car crash in 2010. She said that there are still times where she experiences facial droop and a loss of sensation of her arm. For a few years after the hemiplegic migraine, she even experienced a seizure disorder.

Understandably, Suzadail described the days in the neurological ICU as unnerving, fearing that one day she would wake up and have a stroke.

“Every day, it was terrifying because you wake up thinking that you’re going to have stroke and you’re never going to move again,” Suzadail said.

Suzadail said that she gained more empathy for other people and has carried this way of thinking into her work as a flight nurse.

“You realize you have an increased empathy for people, and you realize the fear they feel in that moment,” Suzadail said “It gives you a sense of urgency so you work more purposeful, and you work more toward making sure people have the best outcomes they can.”

Suzadail has been working towards becoming a flight nurse for the last seven years since she became a registered nurse. She has been a flight nurse for the last two years, working full time for Life Flight Geisinger.

According to Suzadail, this takes about three years after a nurse graduates and gets three years of critical care experience. In Pennsylvania, you also have to get a pre-hospital certification, which can include working as an EMT, paramedic, or prehospital registered nurse, among other positions.

Thanks to the wonderful #networking world of LinkedIn, Suzadail had alerts set up for any potential flight nurse positions at Hershey Medical Center. Sure enough, a per diem flight nurse position popped up one day before the coronavirus pandemic took off.

When Suzadail showed up to her first shift of her first day of work, she found out that she would be flying the same helicopter that flew her seven years ago. She described the moment as “surreal.”

“To be able to put the work into the [Hershey Medical Center] system and to be able to pay it forward to the community, it’s humbling,” Suzadail said.

If there’s anything that Suzadail wants people to take away from her experience, it’s that the tough moments in life will push you to become a stronger person and to not let them break you.

“We become stronger by the thing that we have to overcome. It makes us better…It’s a character building moment. You let yourself be weak for a few seconds, but then you move on. Don’t ever let it break you. You just let it help make you stronger.”

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About the Author

Mackenzie Cullen

Sadly, Mackenzie graduated from Penn State in 2022. She majored in English and served as one of Onward State's associate editors. You can keep up with her life and send compliments to @MackenzieC__ on Twitter.

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