Paramedic, Pilot, Eagle Scout, and CEO of LifeFlight

This story appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Dispatches.

Joe Kellner took over as CEO of LifeFlight of Maine on October 1, 2023. Joe has worked thousands of calls as a paramedic, flies an airplane recreationally, and is the father of two young boys.

by Jesse Ellison

In late October, when Maine suffered a mass shooting, Joe Kellner had been serving in his new position as CEO of LifeFlight for less than three weeks.

When Kate O’Halloran, who runs The LifeFlight Foundation, got a call alerting her to the situation, she immediately got in her car and went to the hangar in Auburn where LifeFlight has long maintained a base. She got there just as the LifeFlight plane was arriving from Bangor, loaded with blood, and she watched as two members of the LifeFlight crew moved the blood from the plane to Kellner’s waiting pickup truck and then as the three of them drove off towards the hospital. It was just a half an hour after the call had come in, at the beginning of what would be a deeply chaotic night. “He drove into the heart of Lewiston during an active shooter situation,” O’Halloran told me a week later. “If that isn’t the epitome of leadership, I don’t know what is. To see Joe in that pickup truck and watch his taillights as he drove off…. I tell you, I’ll never forget it.”

Kellner, who is not yet forty years old, is, by all accounts, “unflappable.” He is also deeply humble. When we spoke, Kellner told me that he was “involved in scouting” in his youth, but didn’t mention that he’d achieved the highest rank of Eagle Scout, an accomplishment only four percent of Scouts reach. He came to Maine from Massachusetts, where he grew up, to study at the University of Maine. There, he met some EMTs, and they convinced him to come for a ride along. He remembers his first patient vividly and was struck by observing the chain of care — from the scene to the ambulance to the ER or, in this case, the OR, where a very sick patient had a positive outcome. “The rest, as they say, is history,” he says. “I ended up spending a lot of time there. I wasn’t found at frat parties, I was found working EMT shifts.”

After graduation, Kellner moved to Washington DC to work for an air medical group. But it was short-lived. He missed Maine, the woods in particular. He returned in 2009 and has been here ever since, starting in a leadership role at Capital Ambulance, where he eventually became the senior leader; MedComm, the communications center used by LifeFlight and ambulance services across the state; and, after his wife, an attorney, accepted a job in Southern Maine, vice president of finance at Northern Light Home Care and Hospice. For a while he held all three positions simultaneously. Along the way, he got his MBA at the Maine Business School in Orono (where he happened to meet his now wife, Caitlin).

Joe Kellner with his sons, Elliott (left) and Leland (right).

Greg LaFrancois, the president of Eastern Maine Medical Center and the chair of LifeFlight’s Steering Committee, which selected Kellner to take over from Tom Judge, LifeFlight’s founder, remembers hearing about Kellner long before he met him. “He had a tremendous reputation as an honest broker, who was trustworthy and smart as a whip,” LaFrancois recalled recently. When they met in person at a LifeFlight board meeting, LaFrancois was struck by his command of the facts. “As we needed information, he had it at his fingertips… it was just amazing.”

When Judge decided to step back from his role, Kellner was, LaFrancois says, a natural choice to replace him. The only person who needed convincing, he says, was Kellner himself. According to Kellner, he has always had a strong feeling of connection to LifeFlight of Maine, from the very first time he participated in a LifeFlight call in 2006. “My only hesitation in stepping up to the role was knowing how big the shoes I would be filling were, and wanting to make sure I could give the organization the attention it needs and deserves. Knowing that no one could possibly fill Tom’s shoes, I realized I was at a point in my career where I felt equipped to take on this tremendous responsibility.”

Kellner says that as he steps into the CEO position, his first task is to listen, and his goal, in the short term, is simply to keep the quality and safety programs as robust as he found them. The other piece he hopes to focus on, he says, is the mental health of LifeFlight’s clinicians. “We spend a lot of time talking about the lives saved, and the stuff we do well,” he says. “But it’s important to acknowledge that it doesn’t always go well. Incidents weigh on people. They take care of kids, they take care of mothers, fathers, loved ones, friends. And everyone has a story. We need to make sure that our people have support from people who understand the work they do.”

That focus was on display in Auburn on that dark night of October 25th. O’Halloran stayed at the hangar after Kellner and the team left for the hospital, and she stood with pilots on the tarmac, looking at the plane and the helicopters, which were just sitting there, eerily. There weren’t people to transport, in itself a worst-case scenario. Late that night, Kellner came back to the hangar and sat down in a chair. “He just came to talk with everybody, just to check how they were doing,” she says. “We were all in shock, but he was checking in with everyone, because that’s who he is.”

Jesse Ellison is a freelance journalist and contributing editor at Down East Magazine based in midcoast Maine.