The Night Shift
Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by C. Adams | Illustrated by Frank Estrada
By day they make ordinary deliveries, but by night medical couriers rendezvous in dark parking lots, brave black-market thugs and speed through city streets to save lives.
Stacy Bowers can remember every route she has ever driven, she never forgets a face, and she can tell you where each and every pothole is in Memphis. And that’s a lot of potholes.
Her photographic memory is a crucial asset in her line of work as a courier for Blue Sky Couriers in Memphis. But Bowers isn’t delivering Valentine’s Day flowers or your latest online shopping spree.
“You can’t put a value on the things I deliver,” Bowers said. “It can be life or death.”
During daylight, Bowers’ same-day deliveries include just about anything from court documents and machinery to personal paperwork and lab specimens. But once the night shift starts, Bowers says her runs are 99-percent medical related. Blood, skin, tissue, medication, bone and even organs fill her cooler, and it is her role to get them from pick-up to drop-off in a timely, safe manner.
In her line of work, every second counts, and she doesn’t have time to pull over to fiddle with a GPS. In fact, Bowers hasn’t kept a navigation system in her car for nearly four years. Instead, she lets her mind do the navigating.
“I can see things like a movie,” she said. “I found a job that lets me take advantage of that.”
Bowers, who has worked for Blue Sky Couriers for more than six years, fell into that line of work as a matter of happenstance. She fell in love with the job after accompanying her husband, who is also a courier, on a few runs. Bowers, who made her first trek to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital from Nebraska as a 10-year-old with ulcerative colitis, has been on the receiving end of medicine for most of her life. Transporting medical supplies, and often being the last one to handle an organ before a doctor puts it into a recipient, has put her on the other side of medicine.
“I like knowing I make some sort of a difference,” Bowers said. “I may not be a doctor or a nurse, but I can get you what you need right away.”
Runs go as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico. Bowers averages between 11 and 22 runs per shift, and plays a game of Tetris in her head each time she has to pack her van. Her busiest shift was a 32-run night, where Bowers barely had time to park, much less unload and reload her van, before she was off to the next stop.
The work as a courier is not for the faint of heart. Bowers often goes directly into operating rooms after bad car accidents, and has seen her fair share of death and grief.
“You’re standing there in your mask, booties and gown and thinking ‘man I hope I got it here in time,’” Bowers said. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you got it there in time. And those are the hard days.”
Outside of the hospital’s walls, a black market exists for the goods the couriers transfer, including tissue, medicines and organs. Safety is a top priority, and Bowers is on constant alert as she enters dangerous neighborhoods to drop off and pick up her special deliveries.
“Sometimes you have to take the flood route, or the route through the bad part of town, to be quicker,” she said.
She has been followed through the streets of Memphis, physically attacked, and once had her car surrounded in an attempted robbery from which she barely escaped. To this day she wears a shirt that was torn up the side by someone who attacked her to steal medicine.
“I wear it to remind myself it could happen again,” she said.
Time and procedures are other stressors. There’s only a 12-hour window after an organ exits a donor’s body to get it into a recipient. For this reason, Bowers doesn’t have time to wait in traffic or airport lines. She is TSA certified, and accompanies her deliveries through security screenings and onto the tarmac. Chain of custody is a careful, methodical process, and even the slightest tear in the red tape could render an organ useless.
“If you don’t have the right forms, or follow the right process, it doesn’t go,” Bowers said. “Then you are risking someone’s life.”
Once, she had to take custody of bone marrow from a doctor at Le Bonheur, only to drive across the street and hand it back to the same doctor at St. Jude. Even the short trip was risky: as Bowers explained, just the slightest temperature change or bump could ruin the shipment.
The clock almost ran out once on Bowers as she tried to orchestrate a heart delivery amid a snow storm. Flights were being canceled by the minute, and Memphis International Airport was on the brink of a shutdown. Bowers raced to the airport only to find that the flight the organ was scheduled to leave on had been canceled — but Bowers had a heart to get to California and was determined to get it there. She called in reinforcements to find a plane for the heart.
“It helps to have friends at the airport,” Bowers said. “They can make magic happen.”
At the last minute, as she was standing in the cargo hold with time ticking away as the weather grew worse, Bowers managed to track down a route to California.
Within seconds, the plane was stopped in transit, and the container with its precious contents was whisked away on a cart. It was the last flight out of Memphis that night, and the last hope to get the heart to the west coast in time for a transplant.
“That was someone’s life on the line,” Bowers said. “Later would’ve been too late.”
Bowers is just one of the unsung heroes in the arduous and miraculous process of organ donation. This month, remember Feb. 14 is not just Valentine’s Day — it’s also National Organ Donor Day. To learn more about lifesaving organ donation, visit organdonor.gov.