Ralph Hylton paused at a traffic light on the Eastern Shore. Thirty miles away, the crew of a Maryland State Police MedEvac helicopter cleaned up after dinner in a drab office in a hangar at Martin State Airport in Middle River.
It was 8:20 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 27, an unspectacular day closing one of summer's final weekends. Then suddenly, Mr. Hylton was slammed against the driver's door of his small pickup truck and whipped across into the caved-in passenger side. Within minutes, a call went out for one of the state's 11 MedEvac helicopters, sending Trooper One to the rescue.
MedEvac helicopters have been saving lives in Maryland for 25 years -- longer than any other public-service airborne-ambulance program in the country. Now based at eight sites, the rescue service has flown more than 64,000 patients to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore and other hospitals around the state with a survival rate greater than 90 percent.
A Sun reporter and photographer rode with Trooper One for the 3 p.m.-11 p.m. shift Aug. 24 through Aug. 27, during which the helicopter airlifted eight patients. The severity of their injuries varied, but each flight of Trooper One proved to be another race against the helicopter's relentless and formidable foe -- time.
And if ever time was critical in saving a life, it was for Ralph Hylton.
State police in Kent County said Mr. Hylton -- a 50-year-old heating, ventilation and air-conditioning mechanic driving home to take his wife to dinner -- pulled his small pickup truck into the path of a full-size pickup truck at U.S. 301 and Route 313.
The larger truck smashed into his truck's passenger side and drove it head-on into a guardrail.
The first paramedic to reach Mr. Hylton called for a helicopter as soon as she found him choking on his own blood in his crumpled front seat. She detected only a faint pulse.
Trooper One gave Mr. Hylton his only chance for survival.
Despite nearly dying from multiple injuries upon his arrival at Shock Trauma, he has survived there for two weeks -- where he remained yesterday in critical but stable condition.
"If it wasn't for the helicopter and if it wasn't for Shock Trauma, Ralph would be dead by now," said Mr. Hylton's wife, Joan, who with family members drives two hours every day from the Massey in Kent County to sit by his bedside. "The doctors say he still has a rocky road ahead of him. But he's hanging in there. I just know he's going to make it."
'Circling the drain'
On these evening shifts, Trooper One's rapid-transit service for the critically injured rested with two men.
Norman Molter, 45, a former Marine pilot, was at the controls as the helicopter flew over the Chesapeake Bay at 160 mph toward Mr. Hylton's mangled truck. The pilot was lured to this job two years ago after his mother was saved by a MedEvac helicopter after a car wreck.
At Mr. Molter's side was the 1994 National Flight Paramedic of the Year, Trooper Walter Kerr, 35. He spent his 16th birthday riding an ambulance as a volunteer emergency-medical technician. Since becoming a MedEvac paramedic in 1989, he's kept a list of every mission he has flown. The list tops 2,000.
Mr. Molter landed the helicopter on the northbound lane of U.S. 301. Bent over slightly as he cleared the churning blades, Trooper Kerr hurried toward Mr. Hylton's wreck. He huddled with Elizabeth "Cricket" Beck, a Massey paramedic, who briefed him about the wreck and Mr. Hylton's injuries.
Neither she nor Trooper Kerr knew the man on the stretcher. That didn't matter. The two paramedics methodically went about their work -- the calm center of a chaotic scene of flashing lights, blinding spotlights, sweat, broken glass and overpowering noise from the waiting helicopter's spinning blades.
Medics loaded Mr. Hylton into the helicopter, Trooper Kerr climbed in, Mr. Molter lifted off and the race to Shock Trauma began. Trooper Kerr hooked Mr. Hylton to monitors. He tried to keep the oxygen mask over Mr. Hylton's mouth, but the barely conscious man was in a combative state and tore off the mask and ripped out his IV. Blood ran down his left arm onto the helicopter's floor.
"His color's bad, because he's not getting enough oxygen," said Trooper Kerr, wearing gloves as protection against hepatitis and AIDS. "He's probably bleeding like a sieve inside."
"We're about two minutes," Mr. Molter said into his headset to Trooper Kerr, "two minutes from landing."
From this moving perch in the sky, downtown Baltimore twinkled like lights on a giant Christmas tree. But Camden Yards was dark; the Orioles were in California. Mr. Molter steered Trooper One around the ballpark and, at the University of Maryland Medical Center on downtown's western edge, smoothly set down on Shock Trauma's roof. The 30-mile trip had taken 15 minutes.