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UMass Memorial LifeFlight paramedic is living a dream saving lives

Nov 08, 2023

WORCESTER — When Jorge Yarzebski was a young boy, he dreamed of flying in a helicopter.

It started when Yarzebski and his dad heard the rotor blades whirring on the UMass Memorial Medical Center LifeFlight chopper from their Worcester apartment, located minutes away from the medical center.

"It was a wow factor," said Yarzebski of those moments when he and his dad jumped in the car and rushed over to UMass to see the helicopter take off and wait for its return. "It was the coolest thing, to see it come in from the sky after helping people."

Yarzebski was 5 when he started taking those quick car rides with his dad, sowing the seeds of his desire to one day fly in a helicopter and work in emergency medicine.

Today, at 40, Yarzebski is living his dream, working as a LifeFlight paramedic, flying missions throughout New England to save lives.

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Wearing his official LifeFlight uniform of red shirt and pants and black vest with a winged emblem on the back, Yarzebski was about to board the chopper with pilot Rich McGee to give a reporter a ride-along tour.

That never happened because LifeFlight was immediately called to Western Massachusetts to complete a mission.

McGee and his crew were airborne within minutes, and Yarzebski stayed behind because he was officially working as an "extra" that day so he could answer questions for this story.

Watching the chopper lift off from the helipad amid a powerful gust of wind generated by the swift-moving rotor blades, Yarzebski uttered "absolutely" when asked if he wished he were on the chopper.

Instead, Yarzebski patiently answered questions about his life as a flight paramedic, a career he worked toward for several years.

In total, Yarzebski has worked as an EMT since 2000. His résumé includes a certificate of paramedicine from Northeastern University and multiyear stints as a paramedic in Waltham and UMass Memorial EMS.

All of those experiences served as a solid foundation for Yarzebski to work the last eight years for LifeFlight, where he's respected by his peers.

"(Yarzebski) is intelligent in the care and work that he does," said Chuck Landry, a 32-year veteran in the LifeFlight Dispatch Center, where calls come in requesting chopper assistance.

Minutes before McGee climbed into the pilot seat for the trip to Western Massachusetts, he described Yarzebski as, "a great crew member. Very focused. Definitely, one of the better guys."

Of the hundreds of flights in Yarzebski's logbook, one stands out, he said.

A young man was gravely injured and Yarzebski remembers the victim telling him, "Please don't let me die." The man died 17 days later, and Yarzebski said LifeFlight's work extended the man's life and gave his family time to say goodbye.

"That's one call that stood out," he said.

A strong support system helps Yarzebski balance his emotions while he's literally on the front lines of life and death.

His LifeFlight colleagues offer support. So does his wife, Kate, a physician assistant at UMass Memorial Health. And their two young children are a constant source of joy.

Yarzebski's father, who shares the same name as his son, is another source of support. For more than 30 years, the older Yarzebski worked as a research associate professor at UMass Chan Medical School.

He also co-founded the GEMINI global emergency medicine initiative. It's a collaboration of UMass Chan, rotary clubs, medical facilities and governments that brings training in emergency medicine, expertise and equipment to developing countries worldwide.

It's a like-father, like-son scenario because Yarzebski is also a trainer in emergency medicine.

When he's not working LifeFlight shifts, Yarzebski is a part-time instructor at the UMass Chan Interprofessional Center for Experiential Learning & Simulation. In that role he trains medical school students and nurses in emergency medicine using high-fidelity manikins that mimic bodily functions.

Yarzebski called it his "other (professional) love."

His other love is LifeFlight, which marked its 40th anniversary last month.

"It's incredible to be one of the (LifeFlight) providers. Every day I’m doing this, I feel blessed."

A blessing that feels as strong as it did all those years ago when Yarzebski and his father heard the sounds from the LifeFlight rotor blades, prompting them to rush over for a glimpse.

"When I watch any helicopter take off, it's the most amazing machine out there. That feeling will always be with me," he said.

Contact Henry Schwan at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @henrytelegram