Winning the ‘Super Bowl for nurses’

Christian Brienik ’89 AAS, 92 BSAS

Christian Brienik works in the emergency medical field and is an alum of Youngstown State University.

Christian Brienik

When Metro Health Life Flight in Cleveland offered Christian Brienik a position as a flight nurse specialist five years ago, he thought he had reached the pinnacle of his career.

Flight nursing is a highly specialized and competitive field that requires quick thinking, exceptional clinical skills and a daunting list of specialty certifications, explained Brienik, a registered nurse and YSU alumnus.

“It was a goal that I never really thought I’d achieve,” said Brienik. “We work with the sickest patients, and we offer the highest level of care. We bring the intensive care unit to the patient’s bedside.”

In October, Brienik reached yet another career milestone. He was part of a two-man team representing Metro Life Flight that took first place in a national critical care skills competition, going up against the top 10 flight nurse teams in North America. “You could call it a Super Bowl for nurses,” he said.

Performing before hundreds of their peers, he and flight nurse teammate Nate Hodgson demonstrated their clinical skills using lifelike robotic mannequins. “These patient simulators can talk, cry, moan, bleed and breath, and they can deteriorate if you follow the wrong path of care,” he said. The competition is sponsored annually by METI, a leading manufacturer of medical simulation and educational software, as part of the national Air Medical Transport Conference.

Brienik grew up in Austintown and started his emergency medicine career as an ambulance paramedic after earning an associate degree in emergency medical technology at YSU. He went on to complete a bachelor’s in applied science and allied health at YSU, then moved to Florida and earned an associate degree in nursing from St. Petersburg College.

Male nurses were rare when Brienik started in the nursing program – he was one of just two men in his graduating class. “That never bothered me at all,” he said with a grin. Men are still a minority in the profession, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, comprising 6.2 percent of nurses in the United States.

He returned to the Mahoning Valley in 2003 and worked several years as a registered nurse in the cardiac catheterization lab at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown. That experience has been invaluable in his work as a flight nurse, he said, because cardiac issues are a factor for many Metro Life Flight patients.

Brienik is based at the Portage County Airport in Ravenna. About 70 percent of his helicopter flights are transporting critically ill or injured patients to and from hospitals in a 250-mile radius around Cleveland, including Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties; the remaining 30 percent of his time is spent on accident and emergency scene rescues. “There’s an old cliché that describes my days pretty well,” he said. “You sit around 90 percent of the time, and the other 10 percent is sheer panic.”

The single father of an 11-year-old daughter, Brooke, Brienik said that parenthood sometimes affects his perspective when his team responds to an accident or other emergency, especially when it involves a child.

He spends much of his free time on additional training and coursework to advance his clinical skills, and he’s had opportunities to act as a guest lecturer for classes in YSU’s Emergency Medical Technology program.

Looking ahead, Brienik and his partner on the Metro Life Flight team are getting ready to compete again in May, this time pitting their clinical skills against flight nurses from around the world at an international competition in England. Long term, Brienik’s goal is to continue as a Metro Life Flight Nurse for the rest of his working life. “Let me put it this way,” he quipped. “I’ll be flying in a helicopter until they have to put a wheelchair sticker on the side of it.”

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Winter 2011)