Robert Miller’s dream of becoming a flight nurse in his hometown of Columbus came true on Monday morning.
Well, at least half of that dream.
Miller, 35, on Monday officially began his career as a flight nurse, a goal he had striven for for years, not in Columbus but in the small town of Grants, New Mexico, about 80 miles west of Albuquerque.
“Columbus is my home and it will always be my home,” Miller said. “My goal is to return to Columbus, hopefully in about a year.”
To achieve this goal, Miller signed a contract with PHI Aviation, which provides oil industry and medical transport helicopter services in the United States and internationally. Although PHI has three bases in Mississippi, including one at the District 3 Fire Station in New Hope, the only available position for Miller was in New Mexico.
Miller’s wife Jeanie is a therapist at Trinity Place. The couple’s only child, Kate Ross, is a second grader at Annunciation Catholic School. Still, his new job won’t mean he’s completely separated from his family.
“We work two-week shifts, so I’m two weeks home and two weeks away,” Miller said. “It’s not the ideal situation, but we’ll get through it.”
Miller said his interest in a medical career began when he was a student at Columbus High School, but it took some time to figure out exactly what he wanted to do.
“I ended up at Mississippi State and majored in sports medicine,” he said. “I was an athletic coach at Mississippi State, but I realized I wasn’t really drawn to therapy, so I chose nursing.”
After graduating from MSU, Miller entered the nursing school program at East Mississippi Community College and received his nursing degree in 2013.
Even then, the path to his preferred position was not straightforward.
“When I was in nursing school, I always knew I wanted to be in emergency medicine,” Miller said. “But for whatever reason, my instructors would never put me in an emergency situation. They kept saying, “You have to try other things to make sure it’s what you want. Check out other options just to see.’”
Miller began his career as an intensive care unit nurse at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle.
“I did that for a couple of years and then dabbled in home nursing for a while,” he said. “Then I went to (OCH Regional Medical Center) and worked in the ER for about 3 1/2 years until COVID hit.”
The pandemic has placed an enormous strain on hospital staff, making the demand for travel nurses extremely high.
“It gave me the opportunity to work as a flight nurse, but I always had in mind to be a flight nurse,” Miller said. “The top 1 percent of nurses are your flight nurses. It’s hard to get into and extremely competitive.”
Miller says flight nursing appeals to him because of the nature of the job.
“You’re dealing with very serious injuries and medical emergencies — head trauma, multisystem trauma, accidents, car crashes, where time is of the essence,” Miller said. “A lot of this is rural access. Deep in Noxubee County, calling an ambulance is 45 minutes from a hospital. With a helicopter the time is halved …. That can make the difference between life and death.”
Miller said flight nursing goes beyond nursing skills.
“You want self-starters, people who are good with people, people who keep their cool under pressure,” he said. “These are high-pressure situations every time, even if it’s just moving a patient from one hospital to another. They transfer very sick people to another hospital because the hospital they leave cannot give them the care they need. I can’t think of a better kind of work.”
Especially if the road leads back to Columbus.
“That’s my goal now,” he said. “Learn, gain experience and come back home.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected].
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