Posted on: August 9, 2017
On May 24, 2016, nursing alumna Erin Wiltse put her quick thinking to the test when the float plane she was on crashed into the ocean. She was en route to a remote nursing station about one kilometre off the Kitkatla shore—a small First Nations community near Prince Rupert.
Wiltse, who works as a nurse practice consultant for the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) was on board with six other passengers heading to Kitkala to train a new remote practice nurse who was also on board. When the plane touched down something went drastically wrong as it bounced along the water and eventually flipped, trapping the passengers inside.
Wiltse’s ability to remain calm and level headed under extreme stress was ultimately one of the reasons that all of the passengers survived and one of the many skills she took away from nursing school.
“The plane was submerged, dark and starting to sink. After unsuccessfully attempting to kick out the main windows, which were bolted shut, one of the men on board was able to kick out the back hatch and three of us climbed out the small opening to safety. Once on the outside I realized three of the passengers were still trapped inside—I was wearing Hunter boots, they were filled with water and they prevented me from swimming. Had I let go of the plane I would have sank to the bottom of the ocean,” said Wiltse. “It was chaotic but you don’t even think, it’s fight or flight and you just react and do what needs to be done. That meant going back inside the plane to help the others who were trapped inside.”
By the time the passengers were on the outside, a small aluminum fishing boat had come to the rescue to help the passengers to shore. Once on shore Wiltse helped treat those injured in the crash and coordinate a helicopter evacuation. A few of the passengers were seriously injured, including Heather Pastulovic, who had aspirated due to a broken fuel line and had been unconscious under the water inside the plane. Pastulovic was headed for her first day on the job as a remote practice nurse and had never been on a float plane before.
“I feel that Erin’s quick thinking is a large part of why we were all successfully removed alive from the plane. She was able to keep calm, assess the situation and provide leadership during a very traumatic event,” said Pastulovic.
“Without Erin I would not be here today. She physically jumped back into the water to pull me out of the plane among many other selfless actions that day on her part. She put aside her own safety while she assisted the community and other RN’s here in the clinic to triage each of us and ensure we were getting what was necessary. I don’t know many people in this world who would be strong enough to do what she did that day.”
On March 18, 2017, Wiltse, was honoured with a silver medal for bravery from the Life Saving Society of BC/Yukon for her heroic efforts in the crash.
While she is humble about her courageous actions during the crash, she does attribute her passion for nursing and her career focus to her time at TRU and the School of Nursing.
“It was TRU that sparked my interest in working with First Nations. During my third-year I worked on a project with the Pavillon Indian Band implementing a first-responder program. That was a great learning experience and sparked my interest in working with First Nations communities,” she said.
After graduating in 2009, Wiltse spent time working in a busy cardiac surgery ICU in the Lower Mainland before taking her career in another direction. She took on her role with the FNHA as a nurse practice consultant and hasn’t looked back. Much of her time is spent educating nurses in clinical practice with a focus on public health, urgent care and emergency to work in remote practice.
She is committed to delivering the best care possible to patients living remotely. She likes the challenge of meeting patients’ health care needs, especially when resources are sparse and she truly enjoys the type of work that she does.
Despite taking a little time away from float planes, Wiltse hasn’t let the crash slow her down. She is looking to come back to TRU to complete her Master of Nursing in the near future and continue to expand on her role within the FNHA.