Sanford AirMed: Air ambulances provide care in the air

Air Ambulance nurse preparing for take off.

If you ever watch a medical drama television show, you often see a patient being rushed into the emergency department and the medical staff immediately caring for the person. But how does the patient get there? For rural states like those served by Sanford Health, an air ambulance service is crucial to transport patients needing immediate care.

The first flight at what was then Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, took place in January 1977. Although it’s been proven that flying is safer than driving, being part of an air ambulance team can be both challenging and risky at times. In August 1998, Sioux Valley Hospital experienced a life-changing catastrophe.

The hospital system’s air ambulance crashed just outside of Spencer, Iowa, due to a mechanical failure of a part on the main rotor system, killing the three-member crew.

Since that accident, Sioux Valley Hospital has become Sanford Health and its air ambulance service, Sanford AirMed, has moved away from using a vendor aviation program to getting its own FAA Part 135 certificate and operating the aviation department in-house.

Risk management is one of the strongest attributes of Sanford AirMed. There are many policies and processes in place today to mitigate risk, making each transport safe and efficient for the patients it transports.

Sanford AirMed operates a fleet of four helicopters and four airplanes from bases in Bismarck, Dickinson and Fargo in North Dakota, Sioux Falls and Bemidji, Minnesota. Inside each of these aircraft you’ll find some of the most experienced nurses, paramedics and pilots around.

Kristi Vetter spends most of her days in the air as a flight nurse for Sanford AirMed in Bismarck. She’s been a nurse at Sanford Health for 10 years, providing critical care for patients. She began her career as a medical surgical nurse. She then transitioned to the intensive care unit before joining Sanford AirMed as a flight nurse.

“When a call comes in, we are usually off of the ground within 10 to 12 minutes and then off to our mission,” Vetter said.

Being a flight nurse takes a completely different set of skills than a nurse who works in the hospital or clinic.

“I love this job. I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie, so it’s fun. Every mission and every patient is different,” she said.

But not every mission is easy. Vetter sees some of the most critical patients as a flight nurse.

“We take the sickest of the sick and critically injured patients, so not always great outcomes, but we provide the best care and best service,” she said. “But usually there are good outcomes, so that helps even out the bad days.”

In rural states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, air ambulance services are an important part of a health care system.

“We can work together with outlying facilities and provide the patient with our greatest asset, which is speed,” Vetter said.

At a max speed of 167 mph, the helicopter needs an entire crew on board for every mission.

“Most days I feel like I am the small part of the team,” Vetter said. “We have the most skillfully trained pilots. It’s a nurse, paramedic duo team that flies on every flight.”

A team dedicated to the work of health and healing. 

In addition to lifesaving medical equipment, the EC-145 helicopters and fixed wing aircraft have specialized navigational systems for enhanced flight safety. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in each aircraft allow for pilots to determine their exact position and distance from their destination. All aircraft are outfitted with the latest in traffic avoidance, terrain awareness and weather radar technologies.

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Posted In Emergency Medicine, Health Information

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