Cook Children’s Teddy Bear Transport Turns 40
North Texas may be the home base for Cook Children’s Medical Center, but the hospital’s reach stretches far beyond its eight-county service area, thanks in large part to Cook Children’s Teddy Bear Transport. This year marks 40 years of Teddy Bear Transport crisscrossing the countryside and friendly skies by ambulance, helicopter, turboprop plane and jet to help severely injured or critically ill infants and children.
Story by Ashley Antle. Video by Tom Riehm.
Imagine being the parent of a very sick child. You rush them to the local ER close to where you live in rural Texas. Your baby’s condition is critical and requires a higher level of care than can be provided there. A call goes out to Cook Children’s Medical Center and, within the hour, a helicopter lands just outside your hometown ER. A fluffy brown teddy bear is perched in one of its windows, signaling the arrival of Cook Children’s Teddy Bear Transport.
Out of the helicopter jumps a three-person neonatal and pediatric critical care team including a nurse, respiratory therapist and paramedic. They’re wearing blue flight suits matching Cook Children’s signature blue peaks. A patch on each of their sleeves features a teddy bear in aviator gear and identifies them as members of an elite team.
In addition to their experience and expertise in neonatal and pediatric critical care, the transport team is carrying what amounts to an intensive care unit in three small bags. Inside your child’s emergency room, they get to work stabilizing and prepping your little one for transport. You’re scared, but you breathe a sigh of relief knowing help—and hope—have arrived.
“The hospitals and providers that refer patients to us are often just as excited to see us as the parents,” said Stacy Putman, RT, Teddy Bear Transport director. “They've done everything they can for that child until the minute we get there, and then they see us and they're like, ‘Oh, thank goodness. I can breathe now,’ because they know that our team is going to come in and take care of them and the child. They don’t have the resources we have, which is why they call us, and sometimes they’re hanging on by a thread doing their best with what they have to keep that child alive.”
This scene plays out day after day as Teddy Bear Transport brings the specialized pediatric critical care services of Cook Children’s Medical Center to children’s doorsteps all across Texas, the United States and even other countries—Mexico, Switzerland and Venezuela, to name a few.
Now in its 40th year, the service responds to approximately 4,000 calls annually. Seventy percent of those are for ground transport and 30% for air. Most of the babies admitted to Cook Children’s neonatal intensive care unit arrive via Teddy Bear Transport. Some of the furthest transports are to bring patients to Cook Children’s Hyperinsulinism Center, which is one of only two centers of excellence for the treatment of this rare disorder in the country and one of six in the world.
The Early Years
Cook Children’s transport service began in 1982 with one leased ambulance and a few nurses that would be pulled from bedside patient care to answer calls for local neonatal transports. In 1984, the service purchased its first ambulance.
In those early years, if a child needed to be airlifted to Cook Children’s, the transport team would hitch a ride in one of the CareFlite helicopters stationed at neighboring Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. Back then, members of the transport team also had to use their ingenuity to retrofit adult medical devices to fit children. Not so today as device manufacturers now design equipment specifically for pediatrics.
By 1985, the service was conducting more than 300 transports a year. Two years later, Cook Children’s transport team officially became known as Teddy Bear Air with the purchase of its first aircraft, a Beechcraft King Air 90 with call sign N555TB. The plane made its first flight on Dec. 2, 1987, to pick up a patient in Wichita Falls with crew Cam Dodgin Brandt, RN EMT-P; Paul Shaffer, RN EMT-P; Bela Harvey, RT; and pilots Paul Hook and Howard Schack.
The years that followed saw steady growth in transports and the addition of a number of assets to the fleet and team.
In 1992, Teddy Bear Air changed its name to Teddy Bear Transport to better reflect the full scope of its mission of providing both ground and air transport. Cook Children’s made the leap from sharing a helicopter with CareFlite to leasing its own helicopter in 2004 and, five years later, the health system moved from lease to own with the purchase of a new helicopter.
Over the years, transport assets bounced around to several Tarrant County bases and hangers due to the growth of the service and expansion of the medical center. In 2011, Teddy Bear Transport settled into its own dedicated base and current home at Meacham International Airport in Fort Worth.
One of the service’s most memorable moments came in 2017. As Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Texas’ Gulf Coast, Teddy Bear Transport was called upon to help evacuate vulnerable patients from Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi.
None of the past and current growth of this service would be possible without generous community donors. Long-time philanthropist and friend of Cook Children’s, Clarabele “Pit” Dodson, is one of them. Donations from Dodson made possible the purchase of several Teddy Bear Transport air assets, including a new jet in 2013. The jet’s tail number—N917TL— is Dodson’s birthday and the initials of her late husband, T.L. Dodson Jr., who was a World War II Navy bomber pilot.
The Making of a Transport Team
It’s one thing to deliver bedside care in the controlled environment of a hospital room outfitted with every medical technology a patient needs and supported by an entire staff of physicians, nurses and medical professionals. It’s another to do the same in the back of a helicopter while speeding through the air and sharing a very tight space with three team members and a patient.
“To be on the transport team you have to be the type of person that can take control of a situation,” Putman said. “Unlike in the hospital, we are out in the field on our own, not around our own doctors or other support systems like radiology, lab, pharmacy and all those people that are standing at your bedside. So you really have to be someone that can take control of a situation and be very confident, not arrogant, but confident in the training, policies and protocols that we've provided for you and in the decisions that you make out there.”
Melissa Irving, a 31-year veteran transport nurse who retired from Teddy Bear Transport in 2016, knows the field medicine nature of the job all too well. She once intubated a prematurely home-birthed baby on the family’s kitchen table before whisking the newborn off to the helicopter for transport to Cook Children’s.
It’s not a job for everyone, but the people who do it well tend to stay in for as long as physically possible.
People like Deborah Boudreaux, RN, MSN, CCRN, LP, CMTE. Over the past 35 years, Boudreaux has risen through the ranks from transport nurse to director of Teddy Bear Transport to her current position as Cook Children’s assistant vice president of nursing where transport services fall under her jurisdiction. But, ask her what she does and Boudreaux will tell you she’s a Teddy Bear Transport nurse first.
“Transport is really in my blood,” Boudreaux said. “I will tell people I'm a transport nurse and they'll say, ‘No, you're not. You can't do that right now,’ but I just think it's the greatest job in the hospital or outside the hospital because you get to function in a very autonomous role.”
When the transport team arrives on scene, their teamwork kicks in, often without a word spoken. To the outsider looking in, it appears to be a carefully choreographed dance.
“You work with your team so closely,” Boudreaux said while describing the relationship between team members. “It's just like a symphony. You just work together and do it. You don't even have to tell your team member next to you what you're doing because they already know. It’s kind of groupthink.”
But that symphony actually starts behind the scenes in the Teddy Bear Transport communications center well before the team has boots on the ground.
The communications center is the logistical hub for transport and home to a bevy of communications specialists, often the unseen and unsung heroes of Teddy Bear Transport. These specialists are responsible for answering calls from referring centers, determining the best mode of transportation based on the patient’s location and acuity, dispatching the transport team and deciding where in the hospital the patient needs to be admitted.
As for air transports, none of them would be possible without skilled pilots. Melissa Irving says Teddy Bear Transport has the best.
“They would never go if the weather was not safe,” Irving said when asked if she had ever experienced a harrowing flight during her time with the service. “Our pilots wouldn’t fly if there was any issue with the helicopter or plane and wouldn’t land if it wasn’t safe. We didn’t ever have to think about our safety because we always had 100% faith in our pilots.”
The next 40 years for Teddy Bear Transport are likely to bring the same growth as the last 40 as the service continues to rise to ensure that all children in the area and beyond have access to the health care resources they need.
“Cook has become a premier location for many specialty procedures and we have been traveling all over the U.S. to bring those children to the Medical Center,” Putman said. “The health system will continue to get bigger and better and in turn bring many opportunities to the transport team.”
Celebrate Good Times
Teddy Bear Transport will hold a 40th-anniversary celebration for all past and current transport employees on Thursday, Oct. 20, with an open house at its Meacham hanger from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., followed by a party at another local venue.
Teddy Bear Transport’s fleet includes:
- Cessna Citation Encore+ jet
- King Air B200 critical care transport airplane
- American Eurocopter 145 helicopter
- 6 Specialty/Critical Care ambulances
All assets are designed to transport critical care patients and feature pediatric/neonatal specific critical care technology.
The jet can fly farther and faster than any previous asset, reducing response times and increasing the distance traveled in order to get to patients in need of very critical care as quickly as possible. It is equipped with leading-edge technology and safety features such as a precision GPS system that allows the service to land at airports where it previously wasn’t able, and weather monitoring systems that allow the jet to climb above thunderstorms in order to transport during weather events that would have previously grounded the plane. The jet is able to fly at an altitude higher than commercial airlines. It’s average cruising altitude speed is 475 mph and its range before refueling is approximately 1,300 miles.
Teddy Bear Transport’s newest ambulance, purchased in 2020, features suspension technology that allows for the smoothest ride possible while transporting the most critical of patients.