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Help From On High

When things go awry—whether it's an accident on the highway or a heart attack at home—getting expert help, fast, can make all the difference. In a rural area, that often means calling an air-rescue service.

Story and illustrations by Chris Demarest

June 29 is a special day for Mike and Sue Newman. It's the birthday of both their grandchildren—brother and sister Jason, 12, and Emma, 10, born two years apart to the day. Last year, the youngsters chose to celebrate the occasion at EBA's, a pizzeria in Hanover, N.H. The Newmans planned to join the children and their parents—their son, David, and his wife, Laura—for dinner there.

As the Newmans were getting ready to head for Hanover, Mike kept an eye on the weather. It had been raining off and on all day, and by mid-afternoon, given the forecast for more rain, he suggested leaving early for the hour-long drive from Springfield, Vt.

Mike used to work in the town's formerly thriving machine-tool industry; when his employer of 44 years shut its doors in 2001, he switched to selling real estate. Sue had worked as the office manager for a local optometrist ever since their two sons had left home. The Newmans had celebrated their 46th anniversary a few months earlier.

When they traveled together, the couple usually took Mike's truck—a blue 2004 Chevy Colorado with an extended cab. That day, with the weather looking more and more ominous, the rugged vehicle seemed like an especially sensible choice. Sue opened the passenger door and slid a large grocery bag filled with the kids' wrapped presents onto the floor behind her seat. She climbed in and buckled her seatbelt. She knew Mike eschewed seatbelts, choosing to rely on his reflexes and good driving record. It was a point of contention between the Newmans, but a battle Sue had long since given up. As Mike backed out of the driveway, he glanced at his watch and—given the looming clouds—was glad to see that they were ahead of schedule.

Flight nurse Abe Wilson surveys the cabin after a transport to Mass General Hospital. DHART now stands for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced (rather than "Air") Response Team, since the service includes ground units, too.

A few minutes later, the first drops of rain speckled their windshield; Mike set the wipers to intermittent and turned on the truck's parking lights. The rain was coming down harder by the time they reached I-91 North; as Mike merged onto the highway, rooster-tails of spray from passing cars and semis required him to turn the wipers on full.

With visibility declining, traffic was slowing from its usual 70-miles-an-hour interstate pace down to 60. Mike switched the truck's headlights on full, too, but the rain was so heavy most of the light was just reflected back into his eyes. But he kept them on, hoping it would help.

Soon the rain was coming down in sheets. The Newmans passed several cars that had pulled off into the breakdown lane to wait out the storm. Mike glanced in the rearview mirror; it was like looking through shower-stall glass at distant, fragmented lights. He slowed down still more, worried about hydroplaning. The noise of the rain drumming on the truck roof and of the wipers slapping at the windshield was deafening. Suddenly a red sedan sped by in the passing lane, "doing a hundred miles an hour," Sue recalls, shocked by the driver's idiocy. The spray from the passing car blasted their windshield, jolting them both back in their seats. Sue

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Demarest, the author and illustrator of many children's books, has in recent years focused on real-life adventure, including flying with the Hurricane Hunters and the U.S. Coast Guard. An official artist for the Coast Guard, he traveled in May 2006 to the Persian Gulf to document its work in words and watercolors. The idea of chronicling the Dartmouth-Hitchcock air-rescue service arose from that trip, and he began doing occasional ride-alongs a year ago. He also used to be a volunteer firefighter in Thetford, Vt., and later in Meriden, N.H., so is familiar with the work of first responders. He's currently working on a book for adults about DHART and the history of medevac services. This feature tells the story of his first day with DHART; the patients involved have given permission for the story to be told, but their names and some identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy.

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