One morning, with a thick layer of fog over New York City, an organ transplant transportation team that had flown to Pensylvannia to secure a liver faced the possibility the conditions would cause it to lose its window with the viable organ, even though it was only a 20-minute flight. Nate Alexander ’17, Director of Operations at BLADE Urban Air Mobility, recognized a gap and immediately thought about what he could do to fix it.
“It was three in the morning, but there was someone in the city who needed the liver,” Alexander explained. “Without hesitation, I jumped in my car and made the two-and-a-half hour drive to the hospital to stand by as a backup.”
Around 7 a.m., the fog lifted, and the team was able to complete its mission from Lehigh Valley Hospital to NYU Langone-Kimmel, but Alexander waited in Pennsylvania until they landed back in New York City in case the team needed to return to the donor hospital. Every minute counts in these life-or-deaths scenarios, so Alexander sought to help as much as he could, even if that meant driving the organ to New York himself.
Having obtained a pilot’s license in high school, he has always had a passion for aviation. His dad works in the field, and his grandfather was an air traffic controller at JFK Airport. After working in finance for a year, in March 2018, Alexander joined BLADE, which provides cost-effective helicopter transportation all over the country, but primarily in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami. This path would allow him to combine his business background with something he loved.
In August 2019, Alexander identified a potential area of growth for BLADE. The busiest times for helicopters are between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays; otherwise, the helicopters are usually sitting idle. Given that medical emergencies can occur at any hour, Alexander realized the helicopters could be used in organ procurement. Before, people would call BLADE’s line in the event of a medical emergency, and BLADE would then reach out to the medevac helicopter providers. The prices were more than 200 percent more expensive than what BLADE could provide using its own helicopters. Alexander proposed the company use its own network of helicopters in 24/7 services to save money and save time, and eventually founded the BLADE Medical Mobility Organ Procurement Program.
“You can cut out a ton of time if you just take a helicopter from one of the heliports in New York City and land right on top of the hospital rooftop,” says Alexander. “That cuts out any travel time that's needed in an ambulance to and from an airport. And they can squeeze in more surgeries in the day, for instance, than if they had to take a traditional plane.”
BLADE was already flying helicopters all over the country, and because the team was used to high-end clients, the company was prepared to undertake flights that required special care. Operations shifted to 24/7 service to be able to receive organs and transport doctors, and pilots began to learn how to fly and land with an organ on the aircraft. In addition, they started to communicate directly with the hospitals, rather than acting as middlemen for medevac services.
“We leaned on our existing technology, and I frankly learned along the way what we could do for the hospitals to streamline the process and remove strain on hospital staff,” Alexander says. “There was obviously some learning that occurred along that way, and we are always continuing to refine our process to improve, but I was lucky that our company was sort of built to handle this type of work.”
BLADE has assisted on over 800 transplants and continues to add hospitals throughout the Northeast, as well as increasing operations in Chicago.
In the next three to four years, Alexander envisions BLADE’s transplant business as a good testing ground for eVTOL aircraft (electric vertical take-off and land). Before people use them, they will likely be used to transfer transport, cargo, and — hopefully — organs. Alexander will continue to invest in this business because of its potential to showcase eVTOL capabilities and show they are safe and reliable.
“With transplant, every minute counts and you need to be reliable and safe and get the organ back,” Alexander says. “Hopefully, people will eventually feel comfortable getting in these vehicles as well. Obviously, this is five to seven years out, but that's the goal.”
Though his Notre Dame education did not prepare him specifically for aviation, it cultivated his drive to determine success as using your gifts to improve the lives of others. For his initiative, Alexander was selected as a Domer Dozen honoree by the Notre Dame Alumni Association and YoungND. The program, now in its second year, seeks to honor 12 graduates ages 32 and younger for their contributions in the areas of faith, service, learning, and work. The YoungND board, University officials, and Alumni Association staff reviewed more than 140 nominations this past fall, and the 2020 cohort was recently honored during a virtual award ceremony.
“All friends (from Notre Dame) that I still keep in touch with are all doing great things, and I think that drives me to continue to try to do great things not just for personal success but to give back to humanity as a whole.”