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Badger Career Chat: Ryan Wubben MD’97, Med Flight Pilot

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Along with being a skilled pilot and amateur shutterbug, Ryan Wubben MD’97 is the medical director of UW Med Flight: the helicopter emergency medical services (EMS) and critical care aeromedical transport division of UW Health.

It used to be that a picture was worth a thousand words. Nowadays it’s more like a thousand tweets. At least it was for Ryan Wubben MD’97 whose aerial shot of downtown Madison this past winter went semi-viral after posting it to his Twitter account (@MedFlightDoc). Along with being a skilled pilot and an amateur shutterbug, Wubben is the medical director of UW Med Flight — the helicopter Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and critical care aeromedical transport division of UW Health.

What’s your fondest memory of attending the UW?

Medical school was tough. It was hard. But the camaraderie. … You develop friendships under fire, so to speak. By going through this intense experience with the same people, you become a tight-knit group, and that’s what I remember most. And it just so happens I met the person who became my wife when we were medical students at the UW.

You’re originally from Wisconsin but went out of state for undergrad and grad school. Why did you decide to attend the UW for medical school?

At the time I had a variety of career aspirations. Flying, potentially. My undergraduate degree is in anthropology/archaeology, which was not planned at all. It was just a fortuitous stumble into a really cool major. I even ended up working as a seasonal volunteer at the Grand Canyon in archaeology for a couple of summers. But medicine is kind of a calling in my family. So, when I settled on going that route, a variety of factors played into choosing a school. I was accepted other places, but when I threw in the reputation and the fact that this area is home, Madison won out.

Where did you get your love of flying?

My dad is a private pilot, so I had been exposed to aviation from an early age. My family goes up to Door County a lot. And one of the things my dad and I have done is a lighthouse run — flying from Sturgeon Bay up to Rock Island, taking pictures of all the lighthouses.

Ryan Wubben, UW Health

How were you able to combine your love of flying with your medical profession?

I was planning on doing emergency medicine all along, based on previous EMT experience. So I ended up at Indiana University — actually Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, which is part of the IU program. I spent three years of my emergency-medicine residency training there. And that’s where I first got my taste of flying in the back of a helicopter, because as emergency-medicine residents we staffed the medical helicopter. The residency years can be tough and grim — 100-hour weeks and things like that. But the part that kept me going was the fact that at some point I’d have flight shifts. That was the fun part. When my residency came to an end, I got a little sad because it was the end of my flying career … or so I thought. In 2003 [Wubben and his wife were living and working in North Carolina at the time], a friend at UW Health called me and said they might have an opening … and I might be able to fly. There was a lot of potential in this position at UW Health. It was the chance to be on the ground floor and build something, a chance to shift gears and come back to my alma mater. But the biggest hook that reeled me back in was the ability to fly.

What is it like when your job is essentially to fly in and save the day?

I’ve been doing this now for about 14 years, and when the alarm goes off to go on a flight, if we know there are serious injuries, it still can be anxiety provoking. You get your game on. Usually I sit up front on outbound flights and talk to the landing zone commander to get coordinates and potential hazards, that sort of thing. Then it’s about getting patient information. We try to perform most of what we need to do with patients on the ground because of the confines of space in the helicopter and the fact that we’re strapped in.

How often do the Med Flight helicopters go out?

We usually go out about three to four times a day. We do anywhere from 1,200 to 1,300 flights a year.

Why are you proud to be a Badger?

It’s who I am. Plus, I really think there’s no more tangible example of the Wisconsin Idea than Med Flight — having us fly out from campus to a scene to perform the duties we learned at the UW. That’s why I’m personally proud to be a Badger.

You’re also the medical director for Wisconsin Athletics. What’s that like?

It’s not the athletes. The sports-medicine trainers and physicians take care of the athletes. I help out when fans get hurt. There's a core group of nurses and paramedics that I am responsible for that help the 85,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium. We have our work cut out for us. The first couple of games are usually extremely busy for a variety of reasons that you could probably guess.

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An earlier version of this article appeared on on June 24, 2014.

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