While it engulfed bystanders in a sandstorm, the Life Flight helicopter landing at San Jacinto College's North Campus took Victoria Duran back to another event.
Eight years earlier, Duran flew inside Life Flight — as the victim of a T-bone collision.
Waking up later in ICU, the high school junior knew life would forever be different. What she didn't realize was the accident that led to her being life-flighted would also launch her life mission: to become a flight medic.
Now a first-year paramedic student at San Jac, Duran is fulfilling this mission. And this December, she fulfilled a second one: meeting the compassionate first responders who inspired her career choice.
EMS instructor Kristine Kern arranged the reunion after hearing Duran's story.
"I asked Victoria if she had ever met the flight crew. She said she had not but always wanted to meet them," Kern said. "This started my mission!"
Within minutes of posting on Facebook, Kern began connecting dots to Duran's fire, EMS, and Life Flight rescuers. She invited them to meet the paramedic-in-training during an EMS field day at the North Campus Dec. 7.
Five original crew members — four from the Baytown Fire Department and one from Life Flight — showed up. Life Flight also routed a helicopter to the reunion so Duran could enjoy a real tour this time.
Wiping away tears, Duran presented each group a framed thank-you letter with before and after recovery photos.
"The odds were against me that day," she wrote, "and if it weren't for your fast acting and incredible care, I don't think I would be here today."
Duran's flight nurse, Clint Kneuven, gave her a "Flight Crew" T-shirt and patch and showed her around the "bird."
"It's kind of cool because sometimes I hear about someone a month out but never this far out," Kneuven said. "It's neat to see Victoria's story come full circle."
Baytown Fire Department's Lieutenant Lukasz Bednarek said the accident stands out in his memory.
"To hear she not only made it but is also pursuing a career in this makes it worthwhile to do what we do," Bednarek said.
Duran is following in Bednarek and Kneuven's footsteps since both completed San Jac's paramedic program more than a decade ago.
On Easter Sunday 2012, Duran, her mom, and sisters were heading to a family get-together when a truck T-boned their SUV, slamming into the right backseat door where Duran sat.
She was ejected from her seatbelt, and the SUV rolled several times. When first responders arrived, Easter baskets and smashed confetti eggs littered the highway and median.
Although her family had only minor bruises, Duran was bleeding internally and had broken almost everything on the right side of her body — jaw, arm, hip, and leg. Emergency responders rushed to stabilize her and move her to a safe area for Life Flight pick-up.
Between being hit and waking up in ICU with her mouth wired shut and her mom sitting beside her, Duran remembers nothing.
"When I was finally stable enough, my mom told me the damage that was done," she said. "I wasn't crying or complaining, just taking it in."
Hospitalized for 23 days, she endured several surgeries, breathing treatments, and a skin graft. An outgoing cheerleader just weeks earlier, she left the hospital in a wheelchair, her mouth still wired shut.
Through physical therapy that spring and summer, Duran learned to walk, eat, and talk again. She also completed missed school assignments and finals so she could start her senior year on time.
Her biggest recovery milestone, though, was returning to varsity cheer as a flyer, the cheerleader lifted during stunts. She trusted only one other cheerleader to lift and catch her — her younger sister.
"I knew she wouldn't let me fall," Duran said.
Two days before the reunion, Duran celebrated her last accident-related medical appointment: dental implants. Despite 16 reconstructive surgeries and internal hardware, she has kept a positive attitude about the accident.
"This event is really what drew me to EMS," she said. "I wouldn't be here walking and talking without these first responders. I would like to give back to someone else who could be in the same situation down the road."
As she anticipates earning her associate degree in EMS in 2021, she credits her thick skin and career passion to the journey she's experienced.
"This is real life here. These men and women are risking their lives to save others' lives," Duran said. "It gives me strength to move on and attend my clinicals and appreciate everything I do. Schooling is tough, but I'm more than happy to be here and do this."
I wouldn't be here walking and talking without these first responders. I would like to give back to someone else who could be in the same situation down the road.