Behind the Scenes at Concord’s CALSTAR 1

Contra Costa’s local air ambulance base has a community-service focused team that boasts top-flite medical professionals—and they’ve got your back.

Photos by Susan Wood

Inside CALSTAR 1’s air ambulance headquarters in Concord, a group of flight-suited staff members, including flight nurses, a pilot, and an administrator are relaxed and bantering. Some lounge on a couch watching TV news, others surf the Web, and one fixes lunch from Tupperware containers in the modest kitchen. But the calm, jovial mood changes instantly when a dispatcher’s call comes in from the CAL FIRE Emergency Command Center in Felton. Flight Nurse Michelle Starbuck sets aside her laptop, and yanks the top half of her black jumpsuit back up over her T-shirt as she moves quickly, gathering up helmet and utility vest. She and a second flight nurse immediately head out the back door to the tarmac at Buchanan Field Airport, where the compact CALSTAR MD 902 helicopter is waiting several yards from the building.
Pilot Robert Swarner leaves his salad and half-sliced apple on the counter in the kitchen, quickly checking a set of computer screens for location, weather conditions and flight restrictions. In a flash, he is out the door, belted into his seat, and starting the jet engines. The second flight nurse, Fred Maru, quickly circles the helicopter for a flight check as the blades began to whirl slowly above him. In less than five minutes, the gleaming black, white and teal blue CALSTAR 1 lifts off, heading to an automobile accident in Livermore.

“Felton, this is CALSTAR 1, departing for Livermore, waiting for further,” Swarner radios. The flight nurse in the front, just inches away in the small, glass-enclosed cockpit, writes the coordinates for the accident on a piece of white tape, and posts it on her right leg where he can see them. He enters the coordinates in the GPS system. An ETA is calculated, and obstacles en route are registered.

Soon, CALSTAR 1 contacts the local fire engine and its crew on the ground for an advisory. From 1,000 feet up, the entire crew’s focus is riveted on their approach to the scene. “You can sometimes view the story clearly from the air,” says veteran pilot Gary Garavatti, “you can see the damaged cars, often skid marks, and clusters of people and emergency vehicles. On every mission, we anticipate and plan as much as we can for the moment the flight nurses’ boots hit the ground. It may be on a state route, in a regional park, on a mountain, a dock, a beach, or a backyard—you name it, we’ve landed on it.”

Calculating the wind’s direction and the safest approach, the pilot sets down the aircraft several yards from the tangled automobiles, and the flight nurses are instantly meeting with onsite emergency personnel, crouching at the side of the injured man who needs air evacuation. This time, the injuries are not overly severe; immediate treatment includes securing an airway and stabilizing the spine.
Onsite firefighters help the nurses carefully load the patient onto a litter, strap him in, and bring him to the open helicopter bay. An IV is started, and pain medications administered. The helicopter, still running, becomes a mobile critical care unit, with onboard equipment including oxygen, monitors and a ventilator.

As the nurses work on the injured man, the chopper streaks through the air towards the trauma center at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. The pilot radios ahead to the hospital, and after a 12-minute flight, (half the time needed for ground transport) the MD 902 touches down on the helipad. Already waiting is a crew from the hospital. The air ambulance and hospital teams orchestrate a fast transfer of the patient onto a wheeled gurney, and move him into the trauma center, where doctors and nurses are already prepared for the case. CALSTAR’s flight nurses remain to debrief the trauma team, and when the patient is fully in their care, the transport crew loads up again, and heads home to the base in Concord, another 12 minutes away.

Like on most other calls, the main concept in the minds of the pilot and nurses is the safe transport of the patient within what’s known as the “golden hour,” or the crucial 60 minutes following a serious injury, when lifesaving measures have the greatest chance of successfully overcoming a trauma’s effects on the body.

“What we do is bring critical care directly to those who need it, and then provide expedited transport to the hospital,” says Swarner. “What I have to offer the patient is movement, in the fastest, safest way possible.”

CALSTAR, or California Shock Trauma Air Rescue, was envisioned in 1983 as an independent, regional air ambulance service that is patient centered and community based. It is a nonprofit public benefit corporation. In its first year, the organization flew about 250 patients to area hospitals. Now, it moves at least 300 per month, according to Ross Fay, CALSTAR’s director of the San Francisco Bay Region.
Those not involved in emergency response or transportation may never have heard of CALSTAR, but the people who work there live near you in Walnut Creek, Concord, Danville, San Ramon and other East Bay towns. They could well be the most interesting people that you’d never want to meet under the wrong circumstances.

CALSTAR 1 in Concord is one of 11 bases within the organization, which covers territory from Ukiah to Santa Barbara and from the Bay Area to the western edge of Nevada. The bases are manned 24/7 to respond to traumas including heart attacks, traffic collisions, gunshot wounds, recreational accidents, falls, burns and a wide variety of other situations. The service is also called upon to transport patients, including tiny neonates, between medical facilities. In 2009, the Concord staff of 20 completed more than 375 missions, in an area of roughly 50 nautical miles from Solano to the coastline to Southern Alameda.

CALSTAR’s aircrafts are modified with special medical interiors, high intensity searchlights and a tremendous range of radio frequencies for communication with any agency or location. The MD 902 Explorer, one of the newest helicopters in the CALSTAR fleet, is a twin jet-turbine aircraft specially designed without a tail rotor, and engineered for close maneuvering, minimal sound and rotor downwash.

Director Fay, himself a former Medevac helicopter pilot in Viet Nam and a former hospital administrator, says that “without question, the most spectacular thing about CALSTAR is the people who work here. They are so highly skilled, and dedicated; they eagerly respond to the call in sometimes extremely challenging circumstances, and they are completely patient-focused.”

“Most people are surprised that we are an independent agency, not a government service nor attached to a hospital. We exist as a stand-alone, a non-profit, which is unique, and we work from a completely different philosophical basis. Decision-making, day to day, is for the benefit of the patients we serve. “

CALSTAR sports an impressive safety record, last year celebrating 25 years of accident-free flying. The Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Director for Contra Costa County, Art Lathrop, recently praised CALSTAR as “absolutely vital in making sure that seriously injured patients are transported from their locations to the trauma center. Without them, we would be looking at transport times exceeding the ‘golden hour.’ The presence of that air medical service makes all the difference in situations where time to the trauma center is most critical.”

Joseph Barger, M.D., EMS Medical Director, added that “it definitely feels good to have a provider with a fantastic safety record. The hospital can’t be everywhere at the same time, but the air crews provide a high level of care outside the hospital that can make the important difference in improvements in outcome.”

Like other air medical providers, CALSTAR has critics who question the appropriateness of their charges, which can reach as high as $30,000, depending on the distances flown and treatment rendered. Fay counters that “a lot of people don’t realize that overall, actual revenue received is less than 50 percent of billed charges – ultimately, reimbursement and cash flow are critical issues for a nonprofit air ambulance – just like other medical organizations. We offer a membership plan and other programs that either eliminate charges altogether, or offer payment alternatives.” Fay estimates that less than a quarter of the 1,500 air medical helicopters in the country are run on a non-profit management model.

The Regional Trauma Center at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek is CS-1’s primary destination, though CALSTAR also delivers patients to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, and the pediatric trauma unit at Children’s Hospital Oakland. Other hospitals with helipads that accept and send out patients include Doctor’s Medical Center in San Pablo, Valley Care Medical Center in Pleasanton, Northbay Medical Center in Fairfield, and Vaca Valley Hospital in Vacaville.

CALSTAR helicopters were among the first responders to the collapsed Cypress Structure in Oakland after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. After participating in a recent “Every 15 Minutes” teen intervention program at a local high school, which dramatically depicts the consequences of drinking and driving, CALSTAR pilot Tim Tatman was approached by a student who thanked him for saving her father, who had been trapped in the Cypress Structure. The veteran pilot, since retired, was startled, and the impact of the conversation was profound – he realized that he had only flown one patient that day…and all these years later, here stood a young woman who had been an infant when that fortunate patient — her father — was rescued.

New Developments
Developments in the air medical transport industry that CALSTAR has adopted include refitting aircraft for transporting tiny infants—neonates—in ‘isolettes,’ large, specialized environments that provide them the best medical support. Formerly, this 400-lb. plus equipment did not fit in the cabins of most helicopters, but the MD 902 Explorer can accommodate it. This special type of transportation also requires a sophisticated, trained team to operate the equipment. The new MD 902 also has the smoothest ride due to minimum vibration, an advantage for these delicate patients.

CALSTAR helicopters, like some regional ground ambulances, also are equipped with portable 12-lead EKG devices in the field, which can provide early detection of heart attacks, benefiting patients whose vital information can be communicated to the hospital before they even arrive.

Working at CALSTAR
One of the striking things about the CALSTAR team is the teamwork, comfort and trust between personnel. “Everyone knows their roles well, and everyone supports one another. The missions develop a closeness—a family feeling. You get to depend on your teammates as your right hand, or an extension of your own eyes and judgment,” says Fay.

“Another thing that makes us different is the advanced skill sets of our flight nurses,” he adds. CALSTAR sends two trauma nurses on each mission, which is unusual among air ambulance organizations. The bar is also set high for pilots, who are required to have more than 3000 hours of specialized flight time to be hired, also unusual for the industry.

To provide a window into a day in the life of this air rescue team, journalist Laura Kaufman and photographer Susan Wood spent time with several staff members at CALSTAR’s base in Concord. Meet the people who make up the CALSTAR staff:

Michelle StarbuckMichelle Starbuck, Flight Nurse
The Rescued Becomes the Rescuer

Michelle started her nursing career in a hospital ICU. But she found that she was showing signs of “burnout” after seven years in a cardiopulmonary unit, “where a piece of my heart would die right along with some of my patients.” She moved to the ER, where she encountered flight nurses from time to time, but never dreamed of becoming one. Then, in 1993, she spent a day in Napa, at Lake Berryessa, with a friend. On the way back to the car, she slipped off a steep embankment, tumbling 100 feet downhill – and was stopped by a tree trunk. She dislocated her shoulder and passed out every time she moved. A high-angle rescue soon took place, and a helicopter whisked her away to the hospital. “That’s when I thought hmm, this might be a great career,” she says. Two years later, she was hired by CALSTAR, where she has been almost 15 years.

Michelle’s family has an affinity for aviation. Her father was a private pilot, as well as her youngest brother. For many years, her dad kept his plane at Buchanan Field in Concord, where she is now based with CALSTAR.

In her years of flying, one case that remains particularly poignant for Michelle is the rescue of a Marin firefighter, Ruben Martin, who was pinned between two fire trucks in a 2008 accident that nearly cost him his life. He sustained a crushed pelvis and a gash along the full length of his left leg, which caused massive bleeding. Ruben remembers balancing on one leg, and beginning to diagnose himself, with grave doubts about his survival. Michelle was the Primary Flight Nurse responding to the scene. “Taking care of ‘one of our own’ first responders is always emotionally charged,” she says, “I was very impressed by what I saw at the scene, and especially at how Ruben, while he was still able, was trying to run the call.” She saw him reach down to try to test his own radial pulse. “He wanted to be flown to the hospital closest to his home, so he could say goodbye to his wife. But I told him no, we’re going to John Muir Medical Center,” recalls Michelle. “I knew his best chance for survival was at the trauma center closest to the scene and where they had the full range of emergency services he needed, including vascular surgeons.”

This split-second decision, as well as speed of transport, was critical in saving Ruben’s life.

Almost two years and more than eight surgeries later, Ruben used his determination and courage to recover, and is walking well and back in uniform, working part time, against amazing odds. Ruben tells Michelle, “I truly believe if it wasn’t for you, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Due to Michelle’s understated manner, one might not grasp her depth of skill, tenacity and ability to take control of a complex traumatic situation. But her co-workers all have “Michelle stories.” Pilot Gary Garavatti remembers a call in which Michelle stood on the door of a car that had rolled on its side, working with firefighters while they were using the Jaws of Life to extricate an injured driver. “We had to get inside the car to intubate him, while they were still trying to peel off the roof,” she explains. “I didn’t want to interfere with their work, but I had to get in there and get what was necessary done. “

Outside work, the 47-year-old Oakland resident is a marathon runner and enjoys Corvettes, camping, snow and water skiing and training her German Shepherd, Zora.

Simeon Mason, Pilot
An Ex-Texan Alights in Contra Costa

Not long ago, Sim Mason ran an airport outside Tikrit during his active duty in the last Desert Storm rotation in 2005-06. He served 20 years in active duty as well as in the National Guard. His father was a small town doctor, and got his start as an ambulance driver in the 1950s. Mason sees his current job as an extension of that. Mason, his wife and daughter have lived in San Ramon for several years, and he loves the community that he frequently sees from the air. He appreciates that the pilots’ shifts allow them to be home with their families most days, more than most flying jobs.

In his role at CALSTAR, Mason finds he uses a lot of what he learned in the military. “There, we always trained for what we hoped we never had to do,” he says. “As an EMS pilot, you actually perform in these emergency situations constantly.” Like the other CALSTAR pilots, he is fixated on safety. “There are vital decisions constantly. For instance, on days like today, cloudy, with wind, anything could affect the flights. Can we launch? It’s a judgment call. Weather can deteriorate even during a flight. We have a slogan: Three to go, one to say no. That means that even if three team members are OK to fly, but one sees something detrimental, they can say no, and we will abort. The bottom line is always safety for the patient and the crew. “

In the event that the helicopter cannot launch, injured parties may be transported by ground, or by a CALSTAR helicopter from another base where conditions are clear, or by another carrier.

Mason, 48, is the sort of solid, salt-of-the-earth type, who inspires confidence in emergency situations. He says he is most proud of his flight nurse colleagues. “We just drive the ambulance, but what the nurses do is amazing. They provide a high level of care, more than in any other nursing field. They run a mini-ER in the back and have authority to perform higher level procedures, such as intubation and providing controlled medications, due to special certifications and continuing education.” Like the nurses, pilots receive constant training at CALSTAR and are evaluated every year.

One recent advance in safety equipment that Mason and the other pilots are enthusiastic about is the night-vision goggles used to enhance visibility in the dark. “The difference is amazing,” he says. “It’s the latest technology available. It can allow us more safety in missions that might have been turned down before due to impossible visibility.”

“I’ve always been a Type A adrenaline junkie, so this job fits me nicely. I’m also a people person, which is very important. Though we put up with hours of boredom surrounded by moments of action, there is plenty to do in the off-time; from shopping online to washing the aircraft, to studying medical or aviation books for the classes we have. There is no nervousness or tension—people relax.”

Some of the toughest flights are the ones involving kids. “You see a complete demeanor change in the crew,” he says. He estimates that 90 percent of calls to his hometown are related to kids. “We get a lot of horseback riding injuries, and other recreation accidents,” he says. CALSTAR is a great help on nearby Mt. Diablo, where the crew sees biking injuries from blown tires, i.e., broken collarbones. “We can provide great relief to these athletes,” he says. “It’s an hour to get out of there by ambulance, but three minutes to John Muir by helicopter. That’s an hour less of pain. The most preventable accidents I observe daily are those with a lack of helmets with the chin straps fastened – without that, the helmet can fly off on impact,” he says. He also cautions Contra Costans about driving after the season’s first rain. “Six months worth of oil and other substances on the roads contributes to a lot of accidents,” he says.

Mason, like the others, likes his job. “This is very much a family. The crew has all helped make our trailer homier, with appliances, books and movies – but sometimes, we start a movie six times before we can finish it,” he laughs.

Billie Jean Mendoza

Billie Jean Mendoza, Base Mechanic – Aircraft Technician
The Nuts and Bolts of Flying

This is the first civilian job for the diminutive mechanic, who grew up in the L.A. area and always knew she wanted to work with her hands. Her military recruiter aimed to place her where she was most qualified, and on the list of options was battalion construction, work with the Seabees, or aircraft mechanics. That’s where she landed. She got her on–the-job training with Seahawk H60s, the Navy version of the Blackhawk helicopter.

Billie Jean was the only woman in her “A” School basic aviation maintenance class in the Navy, but doesn’t feel she was treated differently. At CALSTAR, however, it’s a different environment completely. “It’s a family. I love what I do—keeping the equipment up and running and where the crew wants it. I have quite a bit of autonomy—a base mechanic profile is someone who can work very independently, but I actually have fun here,” she says.

One problem that brought out Mendoza’s sleuthing skills recently was an issue with an onboard radio. Pilots and crew complained about poor audio during a mission. “I’m the one to unravel the problem,” says Mendoza. She is quiet, but methodical, and uses both her gut and painstaking procedures to diagnose problems. (In this case, she says, it was the control head.)

Besides daily routine checks of the aircraft, Mendoza periodically helps take apart and inspect her helicopter—entirely. This and other heavy maintenance is mostly done at the CALSTAR headquarters in Sacramento, which includes a large hangar at McClellan Air Park equipped with the specialty tools designed for each aircraft. The mechanic is relied upon to troubleshoot and make critical decisions about the airworthiness of her aircraft. “You have to be kind of paranoid,” she says, “on my drive home, I run through everything I’ve done that day. Everything is double-checked and triple–checked to be mission-ready. I know a mechanic who even dreams about what he’s done at work.”

Off duty, the 26-year old enjoys hiking and just relaxing, or fixing up her new home in Vallejo. She has a reputation as the staff member who is constantly eating. She waves a chicken leg to illustrate a point: “I am really happy here; and I’m happy that I picked a place that can say it’s been accident-free for 25 years.”

Mary Barlow

Mary Barlow, R.N., Flight Nurse
Passing on the Inspiration

“I remember the exact minute I decided to be a flight nurse. It was in my first semester at college. I knew I wanted a healthcare field, but a local flight nurse spoke to one of my classes with so much passion and confidence, she inspired my decision,” says Barlow.

The Idaho Falls native first came to California as a travel nurse and fell in love with the Bay Area. Starting in Critical Care, Barlow enjoyed the autonomy and challenge of that specialty. She tried other units, and came full circle back to flight nursing. She chose CALSTAR “because the interview scared me—I saw how much opportunity to learn I would have, and what a jumping-off place it would be to really blow up my career.” The deciding factor was the positive environment and safety culture of the organization. “The big thing Ross (Fay) is concerned about is keeping us safe,” she adds, noting that people, including her parents, perceive her job as more dangerous than it is. “As a team, we really adopt that philosophy. Every time the phone rings we are all on our toes, everyone holds each other to that. We are vigilant about our safety. It’s important to treat every time like the first time.”

Barlow has two 24-hour shifts per week. The crew sleeps overnight in small rooms in the narrow portable building; their lockers hold a few essentials as well as an assortment of family pictures, cartoons, artifacts, and random items of décor. “Even when you’re not working, you’re not at home,” Mary says. “Some nights you get very little sleep. We’re paid to take care of people whenever needed. The priority is being mission-ready.”

“What I enjoy so much is being around very high-functioning, proactive, motivated co-workers. I’ve never been surrounded by so many intelligent people, with the ability to think outside the box. The knowledge of the pilots is amazing, from local geography to weather to everything else. And everybody here has a great sense of humor.” Another benefit of the job: “When you’re in a situation where somebody needs help, and you have the skill set to provide it, that’s a wonderful feeling. It could be the worst thing that has ever happened to them—and I love being able to contribute to making it better.”

After the tension of rescue work, she says, staff needs a cathartic release, and people need to remember not to take themselves too seriously. “Every call is different with so many unknowns and variables. You’re thrown a complete puzzle, and have to think on your feet. You have one chance to do it right. Everybody has a bad call now and then. You review it in your mind, and wonder if you did the best you could. Those days define you. We’re all hard on ourselves; that’s when our partners are most supportive. Reviewing a situation is where you find what the insight is for you.”

Barlow loves working with high school students, and recently went to George Washington High School in San Francisco to participate in a Career Day. “Especially for young women, role models are so important, showing them how to be physically strong, yet feminine,” she says. She herself loves to keep fit, and runs, camps and goes rock climbing.

Any advice for Contra Costans who want to avoid incidents that bring CALSTAR to their doorstep? “Please, please, wear a helmet! Parents, please put helmets on your kids when they bike or skateboard. Some of the saddest things I’ve seen are kids who sustain head injuries that could have been prevented. Mitigate those risks as much as intelligently possible. You have a huge opportunity to drastically change your future, or your child’s future.”

Her last words, with a smile: “I would love to be with CALSTAR until I retire.”

Gary Garavatti

Gary Garavatti, Pilot
You Don’t Know Us Until You Need Us

According to Garavatti, people just don’t understand the value of a highly-skilled air transport team until they’ve been a victim. After 27 years in law enforcement, including terms as a motorcycle cop, helicopter pilot and traffic reconstruction investigator, plus stints flying for KGO and Channel 4, he has seen it all. “The absolute most important thing in a traumatic injury is time,” he says. There is no other way besides the helicopter to go right to where someone’s hurt, avoid traffic, and get directly to the hospital.”

He notes that polished interpersonal skills are hugely valuable in the environment of teamwork, a close-quartered airborne situation, and in coordinating patient care with safety and speed.
Helicopter pilots at CALSTAR must have a minimum of 3000 hours of flight time – a very high number, even for former military pilots, Garavatti says. Experience matters, in ways people might not expect.

He outlines a common scenario during a call:

“At the scene, the pilot gets the estimated weight of the patient, and quickly puts together formulas for balancing the aircraft, calculating in the weight of fuel and the known weight of the nurses. We usually know what hospital we’ll go to, based on distance, and patient condition, and can punch in coordinates to the GPS navigation system. When the patient is stabilized, the nurses call in a patient assessment to the receiving facility, i.e., ‘this is CS1 with a trauma activation, male subject, victim of gunshot wound (GSW), alert and oriented,’ followed by time enroute to the landing helipad at the hospital so the trauma team is readied for what is arriving in a matter of minutes.”

“I’m in awe to know what the nurses are doing in the back,” he adds. He tells them one minute away from landing to get back in their seatbelts, and they give a thumbs-up and help clear the helicopter during landing. Garavatti gloves up and helps unload; he often helps carry medical equipment into the hospital with the patient. As soon as the team returns to the Concord facility, the nurses restock medical supplies, and he refills oxygen tanks and fuel. Then, charting is done.

“In jobs like this, you’re going to see a lot of bad things, and it has an emotional impact over the years. I try to keep the emotional end out of it, otherwise it’s very affecting. Sometimes, events such as the recent attack on the Richmond girl at her school really stay with you. You have to keep focused.”

“Overall, I love this business. I have a real sense of purpose in this job. I look forward to coming in and putting on the flight suit. When you’re wheeling someone into the hospital, and they look at you, you know you’ve really helped them, and that’s what it’s all about.”

What does he wish other people knew to make his job easier? “I can tell you from my experience, the absolutely most dangerous thing is auto accidents, but people still take driving for granted and do it casually.” DUI collisions, drug use, texting and cell phone use while driving, and not wearing safety belts are some of his issues. Fall prevention—from windows for kids, and also for older adults, is also more important than people realize, he says. “Accidents really make people wake up to a lot,” he says. Take a tip from the experts before that happens.

Mindfully Embracing Change

Dealing with change is an ongoing issue in all of our lives. Therefore, understanding our own personal style of dealing with various aspects of change—beginnings, middles, and endings—can be helpful. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld in his book, SeinLanguage, shares an insightful and humorous story called “Dining Out” that inspired me to come up with the following scenario. This example should shine some light on how many of us unconsciously react to beginnings, middles, and endings.

First, imagine that we’re going to share a meal in a Chinese restaurant with a group of friends. Envision a scene where we are all in the restaurant gathered around a table. Get a sense of how hungry we all are. During this beginning stage of the meal, everyone pores over the menu, and there’s HIGH energy flowing as we consider what delicious dishes to order and share. With great delight, we negotiate and anticipate all the various flavors of the forthcoming meal. Lightness and laughter fill the air as we each think to ourselves—this will be the greatest meal ever!

Without a second thought, we order a round of drinks and exotic appetizers. While sipping the drinks and nibbling the appetizers, we continue our progression into this middle stage of the dining experience. At this point, we jovially debate with our friends over which entrees look best. The waiter then takes our order, while we longingly gaze at the photographs of the various dishes that are featured in the menu. Our eyes occasionally dart from the menu to the other waiters who are walking by with large trays of steaming aromatic plates of food. At this point we’re still sipping our drinks and crunching the appetizers, however, we can hardly wait until our entrees arrive!

When the entrees arrive, our energetic enthusiasm continues to escalate while we smell the incredible scents wafting across the table from each meticulously seasoned dish.

“Oh my—this is a feast!” one friend chortles with eyes wide.

Amidst a flurry of plate passing and stimulating conversation, the meal is quickly devoured. Twenty or so minutes go by, and the inevitable happens…the meal comes to an end. At this point, the garnishes no longer appear elegant—they now look half-eaten or wilted.

During this ending stage of the meal, we slump back, loosen our belts, and let out exhausted sighs. With glazed eyes, we look at the napkins on the table, which are tattered and crumpled into stained paper balls. (And, as Seinfeld reminds us, in the “old days” we probably would have witnessed a cigarette butt lodged in the leftover rice.) Oi vey…

Not surprisingly, as we stare at the ravaged dishes before us, we don’t think we will ever eat again…and the thought of food is no longer even remotely attractive.

“Why did I eat that last egg roll?” someone bellyaches across the table (buyer’s remorse is beginning to set in).

“Whose crazy idea was it to order so many darn noodle dishes?” another person grumbles while shifting uncomfortably in his/her seat.

And, that’s about the time when we receive…the check. Through low muffled tones, we communicate our disbelief about the final amount of “the check” and alas—our perky and enthusiastic tones, which were rampant during the initial HIGH stages of the “dining experience,” are now…nowhere to be found.

We sheepishly pass the check around…and around…the table whispering, “Is this right? How can this be?”

As we continue mumbling to one another, we finally agree upon how much tip to leave. On that note, the curtain closes and the lights dim.
~ : ~

Can you relate to this exaggerated, but undeniably common, dining scenario? Clearly, our unconscious behaviors in everyday situations offer us many opportunities to giggle about how our humanness “shows up” in our lives. And, although giggling and humor are absolutely valid stress reducers, practicing mindfulness is an additional way that we can enhance our everyday health and wellbeing.

Living mindfully asks us to awaken and learn to be aware in each moment. We practice tuning in to life with all of our senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching…and listening with our hearts.

By contrast, the dining scenario example illustrates how, when we lack mindfulness, we may continually struggle with disappointments in our lives and miss out on simply being in the moment. Did you notice how there was little mindfulness of “being in the moment” expressed during the example? Even while we were sipping drinks and eating appetizers we were thinking about what entrees to order (watching other people’s dishes go by on platters) and fantasizing about how great our upcoming entrees were going to taste (future thinking).

And during the ending of the meal, gratitude for the experience, or an appreciation for feeling full, wasn’t in the mix. Isn’t it amazing how much time many of us spend thinking about the future or the past—ironically missing the most important moment…now.

Let’s scale our dining example down for a moment, and think about mindfulness as it relates to drinking a cup of tea (we’ll start small). Imagine practicing staying fully present during the beginning, the middle, and the ending of the tea-drinking experience. For example, we can practice staying present while heating the water and steeping the tea (beginning), drinking the tea (middle), and after the last sip is received, being mindful of how we’re feeling while placing the empty cup into its saucer (ending).

The opposite of mindfulness is being asleep in our lives. We may be tuned in to our minds (thoughts), but we may be asleep when it comes to our bodily responses or our emotional responses. In this way, we often resist change or endings and notice feelings of disappointment after the tea is gone, rather than embracing a moment of gratitude for the tea. Meanwhile, if we focus only on our negative responses to the ending stage, then we miss enjoying the pleasurable warmth of the tea in our stomachs.

In addition, if we are prone to possessing exceptionally high or perfectionistic expectations, then we will undoubtedly struggle with all three stages of change—the beginnings, middles, and endings. For this reason, life will continually have a difficult time ever measuring up to the “perfect fantasies” in our minds. As a “recovering perfectionist” myself, practicing mindfulness has become an important tool that I continue to be grateful for in my daily life.

In 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Since its introduction, MBSR has become a complementary holistic method offered for a variety of health challenges. Studies regarding MBSR’s effectiveness have shown that, for a majority of participants, pain-related drug use decreased, whereas activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased.

For this reason, through meditation and hypnotherapy during private sessions, I teach clients how to reduce stress by becoming more mindful. When we’re listening, our somatic or bodily responses offer important messages. Unfortunately, when these messages are ignored the symptoms often become louder and may include an escalation of pain in an attempt to get our attention.

We might think of pain (emotional and physical) as nature’s way of sounding a warning alarm. Just as our minds sometimes hold unaddressed memories and traumas—so do our bodies. Frozen or stuck feelings and memories can create a sense of dis-ease in the mind and the body. When left unaddressed, these memories and traumas may eventually manifest in the form of stress-related diseases.

During private sessions, clients talk with me about challenging situations in their lives—including when they felt fear, judgment, anger, disappointment, or sadness. After compassionately listening, I often ask, “Where in your body (right now) are you experiencing these feelings?” Inviting clients to tune in to their bodily responses (negative as well as positive responses) gives them an opportunity to mindfully:

  1. Quiet their thoughts
  2. Come home to the present moment
  3. Listen to their bodies
  4. Begin to discharge unhealthy energies
  5. Connect with their inner wisdom

Inspired by the positive results I see in many of my clients’ lives, I recently created a newsletter, “Trina’s Transformational Tips for Mindful Living.” (Subscribing information is at the end of this article.) This newsletter will be filled with practical information, stress-reducing tips, announcements of my upcoming workshops, and much more (including my butterfly painting logo).

So, as we wind down our mindfulness topic…if it feels right, consider taking a nice, deep breath right now and coming home to this one and only precious moment. As you take another breath, notice if there are any scents in the air. Consider whether you are in a beginning, middle, or ending stage of your day? How’s your body feeling right now? Would shifting a bit add to your comfort?
When you’re ready, broaden your focus by looking around and becoming aware of what is surrounding you. See if you can simply be with what is—right now. Ahhh…and that was a tiny taste of practicing mindfulness.

Finally, when we practice staying present—during beginnings, middles, and endings—we tune in to our mind-body-spirit wholeness and mindfully embrace change…one moment at a time.

To receive my free newsletter, “Trina’s Transformational Tips for Mindful Living,” sign-up here:

The Super Bowl vs. Valentine’s Day: The Fight for February

I’m as romantic as the next guy, not with the next guy mind you, but compared to other guys. I love my wonderful wife and adore my two incredible daughters. I’m a compassionate brother to my three extremely high maintenance sisters and I adore my nieces to pieces. At the same time, I love football. I played football, I watch football, I’ve even been know to wager on football (only in the states that have legalized gambling, of course). I’m also a firm believer that two things can be equally true. I can love the women in my life and I can love football. That’s why I’m having trouble coming to terms with the fact that both the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day are both scheduled in the month of February this year. For die-hard football fans like me, the Super Bowl is our Valentine’s Day. It’s the day we don’t have to be embarrassed to express our amorous infatuation with the sport that impacts our lives so profoundly. I’m concerned knowing that I couldn’t possibly give my best effort to both days simply because there’s only so much love to go around on a per month basis.

In years past, the Super Bowl has taken place at the end of January, two weeks following the conclusion of the AFC and NFC Championship Games. Valentine’s Day occurs somewhere in mid-February. I think it’s one of those floating dates like Thanksgiving—the second Tuesday of the month, or something like that? Each sacred day has an entire month devoted to itself without any celestial distractions, and that’s the way it should be. The supreme calendar gods who work for Hallmark or Day Timer didn’t schedule Halloween and the 4th of July in the same month did they? No! Easter and St. Patrick’s Day don’t both fall in March, do they? Granted, Christmas and New Year’s Day are only a week apart, but they have their own separate months, right? So why all of a sudden do two significant events of such monumental importance have to crowd each other during a month of the year that already has “day envy” carrying around a mere 28 days (29 in a leap year) when the other months routinely have a robust 30-31 days?

Being the romantic guy I am, I look forward to devoting my heart and soul to a designated day of passion, lust and amour, but I like Valentine’s Day too. Now that the NFL has moved the Pro Bowl to the week between the league championship games and the Super Bowl, this is the climax of a season that goes by way too quickly. Once that game is over, the American public is forced to endure six weeks of college and professional basketball before baseball’s spring training games begin. I’m sure we can all agree that March Madness is an addictive rush but, other than that, a good segment of the country’s population (men) go through clinical depression until the Opening Day of Major League Baseball. Thank God for Madden Football on PS3.

Below is a spreadsheet analysis of Valentine’s Day versus the Super Bowl, emphasizing the amount of preparation and emotional effort that goes into two distinctly different days of equal status.

Valentine’s Day Super Bowl
Time: All day. From a good Morning to a “good” night All day; pre-game, game, post-game
Celebration: Flowers/gift/card and the appropriate level of amore Betting pools, shots and a lot of high fives and chest bumps
Theme: Red and White Team Colors
Food: Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate or White Chocolate Chips and dip, pizza, ribs, nachos, peanuts, popcorn
Alcohol: Expensive wine or inexpensive champagne Beer, Tequila and Jager
Venue: Home or fancy restaurant Raging neighborhood party or wicked fun sports bar
Advertising: Romantic commercials featuring greeting cards and mall jewelry stores. Pass the tissues. E*TRADE commercials featuring baby making on-line stock trades. One word, Hilarious!
Wagering: It’s a safe wager that most guys will screw-up some element of the pressure-filled holiday, but I bet most of us are still hoping to get lucky I won $350 last year with the numbers 5 and 8 and my neighbor is still bringing in my garbage cans thanks to moi taking the Cardinals +6

There’s no need to place blame anywhere specific, but I would like to know who is responsible for the scheduling mishap, this programming snafu, this “exhibition of love” calendar confliction? Although the history of Saint Valentine’s Day is shrouded in mystery, its origin dates back to 496 A.D. ( Knowing that this in only the forty-forth anniversary of the Super Bowl (XLIV), V Day obviously has tenure. It looks like Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the National Football League, needs to spend a little more time with his team of consultants evaluating his scheduling options for next year’s Super Bowl. The first of my many suggestions to the NFL online suggestion box will be the elimination of that worthless bye week.

I believe there should be an annual day to commemorate love, compassion and appreciation for both the special people in our lives and an event of the Super Bowl’s magnitude, just not in the same month. Imagine how many men could potentially need time off from work due to emotional exhaustion. Take it from a guy with a lot of love in his heart, there’s no reason two prominent day’s of worship and devotion need to fight it out in the month of February. The Super Bowl is meant to be played the last weekend of January and that’s all there is to it. You’re welcome, Mr. Cupid.

Kiev: Hero City of the Ukraine

The People’s Friendship Arch (Arka Druzhbi Narodiv) dedicated to the unification of Russia and Ukraine, was constructed in Kiev at 1982 by sculptor A. Skoblikov. It is a huge, 50 metres in diameter, rainbow-shaped arch, made of titanium.

Kiev, the present capital of the Ukraine, received the title of Hero City in 1965, in recognition of the stalwart courage of thousands of volunteer citizens and the death-defying bravery of the resistance movement. The city of Kiev, on the western hilly shores of the Dniepner River, bravely resisted the Nazi blitzkrieg, defending the city for as long as they could hold out against the Nazi invasion in the summer of 1941. A mass retreat to safer regions, including Siberia, saved many from sure death.

The Battle of Kiev was a large combat encirclement in the German offensive of the then-Soviet Union, where the Red Army battled to hold their position. The Nazis captured 600,000 Soviet troops, deported them to labor camps and rapidly moved with deadly surgical precision to terrorize the Ukraine. General F. Eberhardt, under the mobile killing squad—the Eisatzgruppen—conducted the largest two-day massacre of Ukrainian Jews on 29-30 September 1941. It was one of the worst singular Nazi wartime-orchestrated atrocities of the Holocaust against humanity. Nazi squads lured the Jews of Kiev, with the promise of resettlement, to the Bykivnia Forest and to a cemetery on Dorogozhitskaya Street, near the Babi Yar Ravine where a staggering 33,771 people, in a two-day frenzy of killing, were machine gunned into mass graves in the shallow gorge.

Four and one half million troops of the Axis powers invaded the USSR along the 1,800-mile front—the largest military offensive in history—code-named Operation Barbarossa. They advanced in military vehicles and on 750,000 horses; the sole motivation being territorial aggression and the quest for ‘lebensraum,’ the acquisition of living space, habitat colonization and raw materials. Additionally, the Nazi regime had contempt for Latins and ethnic Slavs (untermenschen) and the pan-Slavic ideals. To create ‘New Lands for Germany’ they planned to enslave the captured Slavic “inferior and decaying race who choked healthy budding elements” thus condemning the peoples of the USSR to concentration camps or outright extermination that included Jews and 270,000 Gypsies.

Kievites prepared for a bitter battle, and upon evacuation of many citizens, the Red Army planted a network of 10,000 radio-controlled mines. After the retreat, they detonated the mines killing thousands of occupying Nazis. The city blazed for five days—the operation was “the most sophisticated booby trap in history.” The explosions destroyed much of the city, but a lone building stood in the rubble on the Khreschatyk as a defiant sentinel to Kiev’s courage.

It was not the first time that Kiev stood in defiance. In the late 1930s, the city saw mass executions of party activists and intellectuals. Unjustly court-martialed, they were shot and buried in mass graves. In 1240, when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in Muscovite Russia had control of Kiev, the Mongols invaded and fire-branded the entire city.

The city of Kiev and the Ukraine were no strangers to heartache and oppression – it was what made their souls soar higher – for better lives and for peace.

Heroism has Many Faces, Many Facets

From the 1970s to 1990 – the year the USSR disintegrated – the government opened brief pockets windows of opportunity, whereby Jews could emigrate to Israel and the United States. Some candidates for exit succeeded. Many failed. Applications to exit the Soviet Union during the two decades came with brutally cruel consequences–the loss of jobs forever. The aspirant emigrants were branded as traitors of the Soviet People, during the Russification of the Ukraine, and became virtually unemployable and still, the would-be ‘expatriates’ took courageous chances to achieve freedom from oppression and its insidious persecutions—to start a new life.

It is right here that I will relate a most fascinating and heartwarming backstory of courage, determination and a family’s patient endurance for survival of the spirit. I have laid the groundwork of a partial, but poignant, history of the City of Kiev and the ferociously proud fortitude of Ukrainians. There are many such stories of courage, but this is one such story that I know.

In the 1980s, Irene and Henry, two Ukrainian teenagers, whose love for one another eventually bound their two families by the union of their marriage, came to California. After nearly ten years, with constant applications to immigrate to America, and with infinite patience and great tenacity of purpose, the day finally arrived when the papers came through in 1988 with permission to leave the Ukraine for the United States.

George Komsky

The Gift of a Golden Voice

By the time, the young Komsky family finally immigrated to California; they had a three-year old child George who was born in Kiev. The two families found the support of one another and settled in the East Bay. It was just a matter of time before young George, showed interest in music. He learned to play piano and saxophone at eight; parroted the great Pavarotti by singing opera at eleven and began formal voice training as a teenager, with the cantor at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

When George Komsky started high school at Monte Vista in Alamo, he joined the Speech and Debate Team taking first place in the state competition in 2003 and fourth place in the Nationals. As a member of Monte Vista High School’s Chamber Choir in 2001, he performed Verdi’s Requiem at St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome. He won the Edward Barlow Scholarship for singing at the National Association of Teachers’ Bay Area Singing Competition, and gave the graduation commencement speech in 2003.

George Komsky’s golden light tenor voice won him a coveted vocal scholarship to UCLA and after graduation; he toured with the prestigious Irish sensational production of Riverdance as lead soloist, sang with the Twelve Irish Tenors, and was a semi-finalist on America’s Got Talent in 2006. Judge Piers Morgan added; “he was the best male-vocalist in the show,” Seth Riggs, the legendary vocal coach of Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Michael Jackson and Josh Groban predicted of Komsky, his protégé and star pupil, “George will be the next Andrea Bocelli.”

The twenty-four year old tenor, George Komsky, born in Kiev in 1985, schooled in Danville and Los Angeles, is truly blessed with a beautiful golden voice and who may very well be the next Andrea Bocelli. If the dedication to his music and the devotion, courage and tenacity he inherits from his parents and grandparents is a paradigm by which he structures and pursues his career, then he will be as successful as a Bocelli–he too will reach the stars.

George Komsky will debut his first solo performance with a special dedication to his intrepid and valiant family – and a celebration for those who survived and those who did not – and to the memory of his late grandfather David.

Live in Concert will introduce George Komsky to his hometown and Bay Area audience on March 19 at the Lesher Centre. The concert will comprise opera, pop-opera, Neapolitan songs, and other musical surprises.

In the tradition of his family, who have been generous of spirit and caring for others less fortunate, George Komsky will donate a portion of the ticket sales to Danville’s own esteemed charity The Wheelchair Foundation ( who sends wheelchairs to people in need of mobility around the world. The Foundation, under the altruistic guidance of Ken Behring and the Behring family of Blackhawk, has donated over 800,000 wheelchairs to people in 150 countries.

George Komsky: Live in Concert, March 19, 8 p.m. at the Lesher Centre for the Arts
Purchase tickets: $25 regular, $15 seniors and students at the Lesher Centre, Walnut Creek.
Call 925.943.SHOW or Information – contact Anita Venezia