Stronger together: Couple sharing lessons learned one year after tragic helicopter crash
"I remember it like it was yesterday. The eerie feeling before I found out the news. The radio page. Hugging my work partner goodbye. The emotionless drive to the Cities. The sounds of the ICU. And the smell of my fiancée who was dying in front of my eyes."
It's been one year since Brook Weske's life as she knew it came to an abrupt halt. Early morning on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, a North Memorial Air Ambulance helicopter carrying Brook's now-husband, flight paramedic Miles Weske, crashed along the shore of Lake Winona in Alexandria.
In the crash, Miles suffered fractures of two vertebrae, a liver laceration, multiple broken ribs, a broken sternum, a broken femur, a broken ankle, collapsed lungs and blood in his lungs. He wasn't expected to make it through the first 24 hours.
But he did.
Overcoming the odds
Though the past year has consisted of five surgeries, countless drives to the Twin Cities from their home in Nisswa and numerous physical obstacles, it's also been packed full of celebration, love and togetherness for the Weskes, who were married on Jan. 28.
"Many couples have told us that they would not have the strength to stay together through something so life-altering," Miles said. "I have realized that there is such a thing as true love. I made it through because of her, and she made it through because of me."
Brook says her actions through the past year have all stemmed from the love she has for Miles.
"For some reason Miles thinks I'm some sort of hero for sticking by him through this," she said. "I don't think I've done anything heroic. I think that this is what anyone would do for the person they love."
Though Miles' initial injuries have healed, he still faces obstacles when it comes to his physical abilities, mostly from the damage to his spine.
"This left the majority of my lower body movement, feeling and sensations to be limited," he said. "I am qualified as a paraplegic. ... I have kept movement in certain muscle groups that allows me to walk slowly with adaptive equipment."
Due to post-surgery complications and frequent skin infections, Miles had his right leg amputated on Aug. 18. Four weeks after surgery, he is still healing.
"I am currently awaiting my prosthetic leg fitting," he said. "It will be a few more weeks before I am able to weight bear. Until that time, Brook gets to push me around in a wheelchair."
Making the best of it
After news of the crash spread to others in the aviation field, Brook, who works as a flight nurse with Sanford Medical Center, and Miles, who is still employed by North, were asked to join a group called East Coast Helicopters (ECHO). As part of their involvement with the group, the Weskes helped create the Flightcrew Assistance and Support Team, also known as FAST. The team provides free support for those affected by aviation accidents.
"The FAST team developed essentially out of necessity," said Jon Kaminski, founder of ECHO and FAST. "The idea is that the FAST team is a portable resource that can respond to crashes, major incidents, close calls with crew members and assist crews in any way possible."
In June, Brook and Miles attended a four-day training in Annapolis, Maryland, during which they learned how to appropriately debrief groups or individuals after crisis or psychological trauma. A week later, they traveled to Philadelphia to meet with a flight crew who had lost one of their crew members in a crash at the end of May.
"We can take the experiences we have gained over the last year and use them to help others in similar situations," Brook said. "Being part of the FAST team has given us motivation and a purpose for what we have experienced."
In October, the Weskes will speak at the East Coast Helicopters annual conference in Philadelphia.
"Miles and Brook were just the perfect candidates (for the FAST team)," Kaminski said. "I'm pretty sure they are the only couple probably in the world that is a husband/wife team that has flown where the wife is still flying after one of them was involved in a crash. It's an incredibly small community and that doesn't happen."
In addition to providing support to the aviation community, the support team aids the families of those in the profession.
"Brook is able to bring a lot of perspective to families that have been involved in crashes or close calls," Kaminski said.
Readjusting to life
Since the crash, Brook says she, Miles and their combined six children have had to adjust to a new type of normal. For her, this has meant learning to let go of control and trusting that things will work out.
"I've had to overcome my need for perfection," she said. "I've had to learn to re-prioritize my life. and I've had to overcome some serious emotional barriers. Each day can be a rollercoaster, and I can finally admit that it's OK to be angry. It's OK to be sad. And it's perfectly OK to cry."
Given the choice, the Weskes both say they wish the crash hadn't ever become part of their life. But since it has, they plan to continue to turn it into something positive.
"I'm not going to be the person that claims they wouldn't change anything," Brook said. "I'll be honest. I wish Miles wouldn't have been in a helicopter crash. I wish that I didn't have to witness Miles go through what he went through. But the fact is that it happened. And now it is our job to make the best of the situation at hand."
A crash on a foggy night
In the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, a North Memorial Air Ambulance helicopter that departed from Brainerd carrying three crew members crashed along the shore of Lake Winona in Alexandria.
The helicopter was on its way to pick up a patient from the Douglas County Hospital when it crashed north of the Alexandria Municipal Airport. Foggy weather was later said to be a factor in the crash, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.
The three crew members on board were pilot Joshua Jones, 47, flight nurse Scott Scepaniak, 44, and flight paramedic Miles Weske, 34. All three men were hospitalized at North Memorial Hospital in the Twin Cities. All three crew members survived. Weske sustained the most serious injuries.