Hartford HealthCare might be where we work, but when we asked you where you find fun, relaxation or deeper meaning in your lives, we were astonished at the variety of hobbies and activities you pursue in your spare time. To share your hobby, email susan.mcdonald@hhchealth.org.

Pilot Gets a Turn on the Big Screen

Mike Kwas

Mike Kwas flies helicopters for LIFE STAR and also in the movies. Photo by Steve Coates

Pilot Mike Kwas joined the LIFE STAR team in 2013, originally based at Backus Hospital. In 2018, he transferred to MidState Medical Center and became an aviation safety officer. Previously, he worked as a helicopter pilot in New York City. A special assignment on Memorial Day weekend, 2008, led to work on the big screen and a Screen Actors Guild card.

What movies did you work on?

I didn’t know ahead of time, but the special assignment in 2008 was to fly a helicopter in “The Taking of Pelham 123,” a movie about the hijacking of a subway train in New York City.

The movie, directed by Tony Scott of “Top Gun” fame, stars Denzel Washington and John Turturro. I was able to meet Scott, which was a unique privilege, and fly him, Denzel and John around in different scenes. In one scene, Scott was lying on the floor of the helicopter shooting the action!

After that, I worked on “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “New York,” a Bollywood production filmed in Philadelphia. There was a scene where I had to hover over a downtown skyscraper, simulating a kidnapping, which is a lot different than a sightseeing tour!

How did you end up getting SAG card?

I was encouraged, after I got a temporary waiver for the first movie, to get my SAG card, so I did. I have been asked to be a background actor, which I might do in the future, but currently I only answer requests for SAG pilots.

How do you juggle your schedule?

As a LIFE STAR pilot through Air Methods, my schedule is one week on, with three or four day shifts and then three or four night shifts, but then I have a week off. So, I have two weeks a month that I can pursue other interests and I negotiate around that schedule.

What is your dream role?

My dream job, from age 15, was actually to fly a LIFE STAR helicopter for Hartford Hospital. I had an interest in medical services from a young age and rode my bike over to watch the first helicopter land at Hartford Hospital in 1985.

I met Rich Magner, one of the original pilots. Once I got my EMT and paramedic certification, he realized I might be serious about doing it and advised me about getting a pilot’s license. I was working as a firefighter in West Hartford and went to Northeast Helicopters in Ellington. I went on to become an instructor there and flew helicopters in different places, including Alaska and New York State, before returning to Connecticut. When there was an opening at Backus, I ended up there and got to work with Rich. In 2018, I moved to Meriden, filling his spot when he retired.

—Kate Carey-Trull

The Dawn Patrol

David Gutierrez, MD
Spine program director, Division of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

David Gutierrez, MD, and his daughter Maisie enjoy a moment in the sand at Rockaway Beach.

On those freezing Saturday mornings when you’re trying to talk yourself out of bed, David Gutierrez, MD, is probably out on the ocean, waiting on a wave. Dr. Gutierrez grew up in southern California and started surfing in his teens at Newport Beach. These days, home base is Rockaway Beach, NY, where he rents a surf locker year-round. Typical time of departure: 6 a.m.

“I’m not chasing mavericks or 60-footers here,” he says. “But sure, you could call me on Dawn Patrol.”

Do you really surf year-round?

Almost. I pause in February, because that’s when it tends to be really, really cold. But by the end of March, I get out there again.

Part of the appeal of winter is it’s not as crowded. The sweet spot is in the late fall, even early winter. You get a nicer swell, but not as many people because they think it’s way too cold. But I’m telling you: With the right equipment, it’s not that bad!

What’s a perfect surfing day for you?

People can get so hopped up on whether the waves are great or the swells are worth anything. Honestly, for me, it’s just a chance to be outside.

It’s rare to have times when you don’t have to think about anything except what you’re actually doing. With surfing, you get the exercise of paddling out. There’s a sense of excitement, anticipating the next wave. You get the calm of being out on the water, mostly on your own. Sometimes you see dolphins, even at Rockaway.

Some people get a runner’s high. I get that from surfing.

Does your hobby ever overlap with your work?

I’ve had spine program patients tell me they surf, and it’s a nice connection, talking about where we go.

More than that, it’s “practice what you preach.” I often tell my patients to find an exercise they enjoy, so that they’ll keep doing it. For an outdoor activity, surfing is mine.

You have two young daughters. Is surfing in their future?

We’ll see. Maisie is 3 years old and G.G. (Genevieve) is 1. Maisie just started swimming classes, so maybe she’ll get more intrigued about getting in the ocean.

She’s also into the Disney movie “Moana” right now — really, really into it. That may be a good sign. In the meantime, I think I’ve seen “Moana” more than anyone else has ever seen that movie!

—Laura Benys

Donkeys Need Rescuing, Too

Heidi Latka
IT business partner, Northwest Region

Heidi Latka poses with one of her rescue donkeys on her Bethlehem farm.

Heidi Latka grew up on a farm, bought a farm with her husband and, in 2020, realized a dream in launching an animal rescue to help donkeys. An IT business partner for Hartford HealthCare’s Northwest Region and a former nurse, Latka and her arborist husband Marc visited a donkey rescue in Aruba and both thought: “We should do this!” Now, they own an official 501(c)(3) called The Donkey’s Cross in Bethlehem.

Why donkeys?

The need for donkey rescue is more necessary than one might think. Donkeys have unique needs and are under supported in the rescue community. Donkeys live longer than most horses and, sadly, often outlive their owners, leaving them at risk for neglect and abandonment. Their unique dietary and health needs, which can cause significant vet bills if mismanaged, also causes them to be an unwanted expense.

Donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn and difficult. Is that accurate?

It’s not. Donkeys are kind, tolerant, social and intuitive. But, they are also reactive to their situation. If they are mistreated, they can hold a grudge. They are true reflections of how they have been treated.

Who was your first rescued donkey?

Our first rescue was a group: Waffles, Biscuit and Gemma. They are mini donkeys, about the size of a large German shepherd. A guy purchased them to try for a tax benefit by having a farm, but his town told him three donkeys didn’t equal a farm. He stopped caring for them, and we took them. They basically became employees. They are bonded and very friendly and they love kids, so when we have open barn days, everyone can pet them, groom them and hang out with them.

What are open barn days?

We work hard to integrate our program into the community. We have several open barn days a year for visitors. Some youngsters visit frequently to work on their language and reading skills by reading to the donkeys. We work with several local school programs — in fact Biscuit will be going to school this spring to teach students about animal rescue and animal health. We partner with the local Vo-Ag programs and are a supervised agricultural education site for students. We host field trips for schools and programs.

Do you take volunteers and donations?

We are working toward setting up a volunteer program but it is a logistical challenge in addition to the cost of the insurance. We are a registered nonprofit and 100% donation funded. You can donate directly to the rescue on the website (https:// thedonkeyscross.org/).