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Published in CenterView on May 13, 2013
Dan Turner
Dan Turner

AirCare nurse seeks return to skies after devastating motorcycle accident

By Gary Pettus

He doesn’t remember the deer, the ambulance or the ICU.

There’s a black hole in Dan Turner’s memory of 30 days’ duration. A 270-pound chunk of irony with antlers crashed into him, bursting from the woods in the early-December dusk. But he doesn’t remember it.

His memory snapped off like the headlamp on his Harley as he lay on the road in the dying light.

For 14 years he has been a flight nurse on UMMC’s AirCare team, spending much of his living 2,000 feet in the air. Yet he crashed to earth on a motorcycle, tangled up in deer.

A man who had helped rescue so many waited to be saved, but he doesn’t remember it.

Inside the home near the Barnett Reservoir, someone had built a fire. It was almost May.

“I stay cold,” Turner said.

He sat near the fireplace, speaking slowly and carefully, intelligence and humor brimming from his eyes. This is what he can remember:
Growing up in Kentwood, La.

A baseball,blinding white in the sun, exploding off his fingers. On the mound or at third base, he played the game through high school.

Sharing another game with his twin brother, Don, called “rescue,” a childhood fantasy that matured into adult-world careers.

Studying for his R.N. degree, his eye on his bigger “prize at the end of the tunnel” – riding a helicopter.

Climbing aboard his first copter – his first flight on anything, even a plane.

“It was like a fair ride,” he said. “Except I couldn’t say, ‘Let me off.’”

Becoming a Certified Flight Registered Nurse.

Searching for victims in the daylight and the dark. Premature babies and heart attacks.

Feeling the “rush of adrenaline that comes with the job.”

The kind of rush that grips him during any challenge. The kind that should serve him Thursday night at 7, UMMC Employee Night at the Mississippi Braves’ Trustmark Park, where Turner, at age 40, takes the mound again, invited to throw out the first pitch.

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Perry catches Turner's pitch
Perry catches Turner's pitch

 Todd Perry, chief flight nurse, has been dropping by Turner’s house, where they retire to the backyard with a bucket of baseballs and a bushel of pluck.

Perry squats behind “home plate,” 60 feet, 6 inches from Turner, who tries to smack his glove with a ball. Sometimes it smacks the dirt, 60 feet, 2 inches.

Perry is Turner’s friend and boss, but in many ways, looks up to him.

“When other people say it can’t be done,” Perry said, “Dan somehow will find a way to get it done.

“If you had to find a poster boy for the department, he would be it.”

The Department of Helicopter Transport’s pilots, flight nurses and paramedics save time and lives – much of the time.

“You see a lot of senseless tragedy, senseless death, unnecessary suffering,” Perry said. “But Dan can still find humor in a lot of things. You have to, or you go crazy.”

They fly survivors to UMMC or other hospitals. Turner has flown about as much as anyone, said Donna Norris, the department’s manager and program director.

“If we had more folks with Dan’s energy and we could harness it, we could sustain our own power needs on campus,” she said.

That energy spills into the office.

“Dan put together a spreadsheet on certification and training schedules for his coworkers,” Norris said. “It did everything but sing to you and hit you over the head with a two-by-four.

“He’s like a rabid dog. He gets ahold of something and doesn’t let go.”

That was the case with motorcycle riding, on his Harley Davidson Road King, gleaming silver and black, as flawless and sharp as a scalpel. He did everything right – attended training courses, wore the right helmet, Perry said.

“He still ended up getting hurt in a freak accident. It’s just tragic. He’s such a good person.

“Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and you don’t know why.”
All Turner knows is that he never had an accident in the sky.

“I feel a lot safer in a helicopter than in my truck – or on my motorcycle,” he said. “I’ve never hit a deer in a helicopter.”

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It was close to dark that day. Deer were moving.

It happened near Clinton, on the Natchez Trace Parkway. He and his friend were on their way back from Natchez, his friend in the lead, when the deer slammed into Turner, a second of impact that will last for years, even if the deer didn’t.

“It was a nice eight-point,” Turner said. “I have a skull mount. And sausage.”

Turner survived with multiple bone fractures. His helmet was banged up on the left side, but his head bled from the right.

He wasn’t airlifted: The copter was down for maintenance.

Norris was away in Alabama when she heard. She hurried to Jackson.

“Oh, gosh,” she said through tears. “We didn’t know if he would be able to breathe on his own again, to get out of his bed and take care of himself.

“All the people I care deeply about were affected by this, at a level which no caregiver wants to be involved.”

Asked if the trauma had changed Turner, Norris said, “We’re all changed by this. It makes you look at everything differently.

“But he still has that twinkle in his eye.”

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Turner with his restored Harley
Turner with his restored Harley

The Harley is restored. As for Turner, he’s working on it: Full recovery could take eight months to a year.

That was the word he got not long after Jan. 8, the day he woke up, exactly one month after the crash. He now moves his left side again. He desperately wants to get rid of his walking cane.

“For the first time, I’ve had to pay someone to cut and weed my grass,” he said, “and it’s killing me.”

His wife, Angela, a nurse at St. Dominic Hospital, his family, coworkers and more are his support team as he undergoes outpatient therapy through Methodist Rehabilitation’s Quest Program for brain- and spinal-injury patients.

Without his family and friends, he wouldn’t have made it, he said. “And I love them.”

He will need their moral support as he pursues his plans. Walking normally again is one.

“I never realized how many steps were involved in walking until I had to relearn it,” he said.

He plans to work as a flight nurse again. He plans to finish school – the deer also wrecked his schedule in UMMC’s nurse practitioner program.

For the near future, he plans to stand on a mound in front of some 3,000 people and make a throw of 60 feet, 6 inches, the ball, blinding white in the sun, exploding off his fingers again – the way he remembers it.