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By Rose Hoban

Often when people come to the legislative building to lobby, they wear their uniforms: doctors don white coats, farmers come in jeans and John Deere hats, lobbyists have their crisp pressed suits.

On Wednesday, a group of about a dozen people in royal blue coveralls took their seats in the gallery overlooking the House of Representatives in the legislative building on Jones Street. The group was part of Duke Life Flight; their team lost three members and a patient when one of their helicopters crashed on Sept. 8 in Perquimans County. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash.

“Today I ask you to join with me in honoring the lives and service of these four individuals who will be missed by hundreds of people—their families, including their children, their friends, their work family, and the people of North Carolina,” said Rep. MaryAnn Black (D-Durham), who also works on the communications team at Duke University Medical Center in Durham.

Duke Life Flight team members were joined by Duke executives in the gallery of the House of Representatives for a special resolution in honor of the four people lost. Those lost were pilot Jeff Burke, nurses Kristopher Harrison and Crystal Sollinger and their patient Mary Bartlett, who was a retired nurse. Members of Harrison’s and Burke’s families were also present. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Black took what’s known on the chamber floor as a “point of personal privilege” to speak about the members of the Life Flight team killed in the crash.

“I am told that Crystal used to drive to Duke Hospital, sit outside in her car, look up at the helicopters and dream of one day becoming a flight nurse,” Black said about Crystal Sollinger, 47, one of the victims. Sollinger became a flight nurse in 2002.

Some of pilot Jeff Burke’s family members were present for the honor, as were some of nurse Kristopher Harrison’s relatives, along with executives from Duke University Medical Center.

Patient Mary Bartlett, who was headed to Duke from the Sentara Albemarle Medical Center in Elizabeth City, died in the crash. Her family was not present.

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“We’ve provided a lot of grief counseling to the staff and we also provided a lot of grief counseling to the families of the people involved but also to the families who weren’t involved,” said hospital president Kevin Sowers, noting that about a total of hundred people work on the Life Flight team which includes staff for two copters and five intensive care ambulances, as well as administrators and support staff. The service covers the entire state.

He said the team remained grounded until after a memorial service on Wednesday, Sept. 20. On the following weekend, the team went back up in the helicopters on “confidence flights,” where they got back in the air, but without patients.

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The team returned to transporting patients the following Monday.

“All in all folks are doing …” Sowers hesitated, “better.

“But there are still folks who are needing support.”

After Black’s presentation and a round of applause from House members, the group walked across the building to the Senate chamber, where they met several senators and took photos. The photos show tight-lipped smiles, some red-rimmed eyes.

“We all know the people of North Carolina appreciate what we do,” said nurse Patrick Falvey. ‘But just having them honor us this way just means a whole lot, as we try to heal and step forward.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...