The Original Flying Nun Recreates Flight on 50th Anniversary
January 10, 1967 marked the first helicopter transport of a premature infant to what is now known as Children’s Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. Shannon Perry, who was then known as Sister Andre, returned to Peoria on the 50th anniversary of the flight to fly once again.
There was a time when the use of a helicopter to transport a critically ill patient was not so commonplace. On January 10, 1967…the first helicopter transport of a premature infant took place from Zion, Illinois – near the Wisconsin border - to what is now known as Children’s Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, more than 400 miles round trip.
"The baby was in the hospital within 8 hours of being born. That was really important to get a premature baby to the hospital as rapidly as possible," said Shannon Perry, who was Sister Andre in 1967.
I really was the original flying nun.
The television show by that name starring Sally Field as Sister Bertrille didn’t premiered until September 1967. The helicopter was owned by the Peoria Journal Star. Only the pilot and Sister Andre could fit and carried the baby in what might be considered a primitive incubator by today’s standards.
"We had modify the helicopter. The Journal Star had a mechanic who removed one of the seats and put a board in between. We attached the incubator to the board with a bungee cord. I pinned a diaper across the baby to secure him. It probably did nothing but it made us feel better trying to stabilizing him a little bit."
"We carried a bag with some limited supplies including caffeine, a respiratory stimulant, some syringes, and holy water. If the baby wasn't going to make it to the hospital, we were to baptize them. I never had to do that. The nursery at Saint Francis was one of the first in the country to have a premature infant station."
As the Neonatal Critical Care Unit as it’s called now begins a year-long celebration marking its 75th anniversary, Shannon Perry (who subsequently left the Order) returned to Peoria to re-create that historic flight, on the 50th anniversary.
OSF HealthCare now owns four of its own Life Flight helicopters. In 1967, OSF transported 6 babies using the Journal Star helicopter. It now operates the busiest medical air ambulance program in the state of Illinois, with 4 helicopters of its own, logging more than 2,200 flights annually.
Shannon Perry is humbled by - and a bit emotional about - what the program she started has become.
"Just from this little bitty thing to blowing to this. I’m really looking forward to the flight and am so appreciative of Saint Francis giving me the opportunity.