When Brianna Gonzalez was growing up, her father, Wharton County police officer Tomas Gonzalez, came home every day with tales of rescue and adventure. She was in awe of his ability to help people out of dangerous situations and give them comfort them in difficult times. One day, she hoped, she’d follow in his footsteps as a first responder.
As a teenager, she told him she was thinking about becoming a police officer herself. “Don’t you dare do that,” he said.
“I understand now why he was adamant about that,” says Gonzalez, now 28. “The stories he told me as a kid were the ones with happy endings. As I got older, he started telling me the ones that didn’t have happy endings. And obviously there are a lot of risks that come with the job. But I knew I wanted to be out there helping people.”
She decided to go into medicine instead. At first, she considered becoming a doctor, but an experience during college made her realize nursing would allow her to have an even greater impact on people’s lives. “I ended up in the ER for something relatively minor, but it was scary,” she says. “And I really only saw the doctor for five minutes. The rest of the time, it was the nurses who were helping me, and they made such a huge difference.”
Gonzalez earned a nursing degree and started her career a medical-surgical nurse at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, but she had her heart set on emergency medicine. “At the very least, I wanted to work in the ER or ICU,” she says. “But I already knew my dream job was Life Flight. It was the perfect mix of nursing and being a first responder. They give people their best chance against tough odds.”
But openings for flight nurses are rare at Memorial Hermann Life Flight, the critical care air medical transport service, and the requirements are extensive. When Gonzalez made the leap to working in the ICU, she made a list of everything she’d need to do to qualify for a job with Life Flight. She continued working full-time while attending night school for her medic certification at Houston Community College, with the support of her manager.
“I was doing full-time nursing at night and going straight to classes in the morning,” she says. “As part of the program, I had to do 12-hour ambulance ride-alongs. That was super challenging with my 12-hour nursing shifts — it was a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice. But I remembered my dad doing that when I was a kid, picking up extra duty shifts and then going to his day job, so I knew I could do it, too.”
It took her about a year to become a certified medic. She also needed trauma and pediatric medicine certifications, as well as flight nurse certification. And she needed a minimum of four years of nursing experience. But six months ago, she got the opportunity she’d dreamed of: a spot on the Life Flight helicopter. Her dad was one of the first people she called.
“I said, ‘What do you think about having a daughter who jumps out of helicopters for a living?’” she says.
He couldn’t have been more thrilled — or more proud. He knew she’d always wanted to be out in the field, caring for people at their worst moments, just like him. “It’s in our blood to help people,” he said.
Gonzalez is happy to carry on the family tradition.
“To be able to do that is just so fulfilling, so rewarding. Every time those rotors start spinning I smile to myself, like I can’t believe I’m actually here,” she says. “It’s everything I thought it would be and more. I’m amazed at all the things I’ve learned, even in just six months. A couple weeks ago I was on my hands and knees on the highway trying to intubate somebody. It’s insane, in the best way.”
The job is different every day, and the flight crew never knows what they’ll encounter at any given scene. They’re prepared for anything and everything, Gonzalez says. All they know is that someone needs their help urgently.
“Knowing that what I do really makes a difference, in real time, is the most rewarding part,” she says. “The other day, we were on our way back to base right as our shift was ending, and a call came in. They sent it to south base instead, but that was 20-something minutes away from the scene and we were only six minutes away, so we said, ‘Let’s take it.’ When we got there, the patient’s injuries were so time-sensitive that that 20 minutes would have made the difference between life and death. He was able to survive because we took the call.”
That was a story with a happy ending — and one she shared with her dad.
“That’s the most fun part. Now, instead of me being a captive audience hearing his stories, we get to actually swap stories,” she says. “It’s super cool.”
For more information, visit memorialhermann.org/services/specialties/trauma/life-flight.