Living a Dream: Dalton State Nursing Student Works for LIFE FORCE


School wasn’t Joey Bartenfield’s strength.

He was intelligent but had no direction. After graduating from Northwest Whitfield High School in 1996, he enrolled in Dalton State as a general studies student.

He made seven straight Fs. But that didn’t end his education.

Thinking he might want to be a fireman, Bartenfield enrolled in an emergency medical technician program that was then part of the College.

“I was doing my clinicals at Erlanger,” said the 37-year-old Chatsworth resident. “I was asked if I wanted to help get a patient off the helicopter coming in. While I was standing there watching the helicopter land, my hair stood up on the back of my neck. I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to work on LIFE FORCE.’”

It was a turning point for Bartenfield. He became focused on pursuing his dream – working for LIFE FORCE air ambulance, which is part of Erlanger Health Systems’ emergency services.

Bartenfield excelled as he finished EMT training, and then as he finished the paramedic program and became a flight paramedic for LIFE FORCE. He didn’t stop there. He re-enrolled in Dalton State in the nursing program and upon finishing his Associate of Science in Nursing, he became a flight nurse for LIFE FORCE. He also has an Associate of Applied Sciences in Health Emergency Management from Dalton State.

Currently, he is working on his Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing through Dalton State, and he is living his dream as part of the crew of LIFE FORCE 3, based in Calhoun. He is looking into graduate school to become a nurse anesthetist.

“I had to teach myself how to be a college student, how to go to college,” Bartenfield said. “Dalton gave me that chance and opportunity, even after failing my first seven classes. It helped me find what I cared about. A light switch came on. I suddenly cared about school, and I cared about my career. Dalton State did that for me.

“This is the pinnacle of my career,” he said. “No matter what I may do later, this will always be the pinnacle of my career. All I could think of for 11 years was working for LIFE FORCE. Even in my late 20s, I would watch the helicopter land and say, ‘I’m going to do that one day.’ And now here I am doing it, and I have been for the last three years.”

Life as a student

“Joey is every instructor’s dream,” said Dr. Cheryl Owens, assistant professor of nursing. “He’s inquisitive and on top of his game. So I have to be on top of my game. He challenges us. He takes what he’s learned and uses it. It’s very rewarding. He is a great student with a passion for helping people.”

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing program is designed for students who are already registered nurses and are working in the field. The program is hybrid – partially online and partially on campus – to allow students the flexibility they need to continue working while continuing their education.

Bartenfield’s education helps him triage patients quickly and determine the next best course of action.

“In health care programs, you’re taught these things using a book, and they’re all black and white,” he said. “There are specific things you look for for this disease. There are specific things you look for for this one. But in the real world it’s gray. The patient may have two or three things going on at the same time.  You have to prioritize and time manage.”

Dr. Lynda Ridley, chair of the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, said it is their goal to give students the education and the ability to do what’s needed as a nurse.

“But until the students experience it themselves, they just don’t know how they’ll react,” she said. “Working as a flight nurse, you are between a person and their life. You are that link. He is proactive and is always assessing the situation, which is key in that role.”

For Bartenfield, certain aspects of nursing come naturally, such as addressing a patient’s emotional and mental state. It’s something, Ridley said can’t really be taught in a classroom. It comes naturally for some and with experience for others.

“The patients need that comfort that Joey can give,” she said. “And they need the knowledge he has. He has a desire to go on and do more, always. That’s where we make a difference. We teach them how to stay informed on the latest education and information so they can continue to use that skill throughout their career.”

Bartenfield began the bachelor’s program this fall and will finish in the spring. It is designed to be completed in one year and helps students learn about community health, and the overall impact of health and nursing.

Having online classes makes it easy for him to continue his job with LIFE FORCE and continue his education. Balancing his schedule is easy, though it does sometimes mean switching shifts with co-workers.

“I feel like I really want to go to grad school when I finish,” Bartenfield said. “I’d like to be a nurse anesthetist. It’s a high level graduate program. I’m really proud that I came from bad grades in high school and the beginning of college to having the GPA and the resume I need to get into a high level graduate school program.”

Ridley said the program is set up to help students be successful should they continue into a master’s program. For Bartenfield, it is nurse anesthetist but for others it may be administration or midwifery. Approximately half of the bachelor nursing students that graduate from Dalton State enroll in a master’s program.

Due to the popularity of the program, Dalton State will begin offering the program twice a year with one cohort class beginning in the fall and another in the spring.


Life as a flight nurse

Bartenfield understands the seriousness of his job – that he is often a key link in saving the life of a person in an emergency.

“Their life is in our hands,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in my job. We see patients on their worst day. So they need to see us on our best day. I owe it to my patients to have the highest skill set I can. Our patients don’t know who we are. We’re complete strangers. They have to trust us. We have so much responsibility.”

LIFE FORCE responds to two types of calls. The most common is to transfer patients from one medical facility to another, such as someone who needs surgery or care their local hospital does not provide. The other is in emergencies, such as a wreck where someone has life threatening injuries.

LIFE FORCE 3 can take all patients except those in the neonatal intensive care units. Another LIFE FORCE helicopter takes those patients. Bartenfield’s crew has been trained to respond to strokes, heart attacks, high-risk pregnancies, and any other emergency situation.

“Though we work for Erlanger, and we like for our patients to go there, we do what’s best for the patient,” Bartenfield said. “So if we respond to a wreck on I-75, and Erlanger is 45 minutes away but Grady Memorial Hospital is 20, we take them to Grady. We transport patients to burn facilities in Augusta, to Emory, Nashville, or Knoxville.”

LIFE FORCE is different from many other air ambulance services because it is a mobile emergency room.

“We’re not just an air ambulance trying to get the patient somewhere quickly,” he said. “We can go two miles per minute. But we take the ER to the patient. We triage, can intubate, carry blood so we can start transfusions, and have an ultrasound machine so we can check for collapsed lungs or internal bleeding. We can notify the ER what’s going on so they can have a surgery team and room ready to go if needed.”

When flight paramedic Ryan Sparks flies a shift with Bartenfield, he knows he has a good partner on board. The two have known each other since the early 2000s when Bartenfield was working on his paramedic certification. Sparks was his preceptor.

“I don’t know. I may have started out as a mentor to him,” Sparks said. “But he definitely became a mentor to me watching him and the effort he puts into his job. We work well together, and it’s comforting to have him as my partner. I know Joey’s going to know what he’s supposed to do. I can take care of my job with confidence knowing I’m flying with him. He inspires me to be my best. Watching him succeed and keep going makes me feel proud for him.”

Even though he’s on the front lines of saving people’s lives, Bartenfield maintains that he’s no hero.

“I’m just an ordinary person,” he said. “This is my dream job. I never thought I’d even go to college. But I have a deep passion for what I do. I love helping get people’s lives back in control. When someone is having a medical emergency, everything is out of control. I like helping pull those pieces back together. Dalton State has helped me achieve this.”