One boat collides with another on a lake. A child stumbles into a campfire on a camping trip. A motorcycle hits a deer after dark.
Even a summer shadowed by the coronavirus is coaxing people to enjoy activities and getaways they love. But when an accident happens in a remote area, an emergency trip to the hospital can get more complicated than an ambulance ride down some city streets.
When a life is at stake in a rural area, the people aboard Sanford AirMed are there to help.
Sanford Health’s air ambulance service, located in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, has four helicopters that fly regionally and four airplanes that can fly to either coast or anywhere in between. The service can transfer a variety of patients, including accident victims, moms with high-risk pregnancies, premature babies and ICU patients.
Jon Bohlen served as a flight paramedic for five years and now heads up the clinical side of the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Sanford AirMed. He oversees training, budgeting and equipment for the five flight teams: adult, maternal, NICU, pediatric and respiratory therapists.
“I make sure that the clinical teams at our Sioux Falls base here have everything they need to take as best care of our sickest patients as possible,” Bohlen said.
The flight crews
Different teams need different types of equipment, including some typically found in an ER or ICU, such as a mechanical ventilator or IV pumps. So every time the Sioux Falls AirMed’s EC145 flies out, it gets outfitted with equipment appropriate for the patient It will transport.
Typically, a flight includes a critical care paramedic, certified flight registered nurse and the pilot, as well as a respiratory therapist if needed.
While AirMed flies multiple times a day, when teams are not on a call, they add to their education. Bohlen said 100% of the adult team of paramedics and nurses have certifications for critical care or flight, which places Sanford AirMed in Sioux Falls in the company of about 100 other programs worldwide achieving that goal.
“We’re pretty proud of that,” Bohlen said. “They work hard.”
Sanford AirMed Bemidji, in Minnesota, also is counted among those programs.
Flight crew members may work nights, days or weekends. They also may help out when the hospital’s emergency department or other departments get busy. They could start IVs, for example, or perform intubations.
Regional Sanford hospitals, like Sioux Falls’ emergency department, are ready to help with health crises as well. And walk-in clinics are an option for issues that don’t warrant an emergency visit but occur at inconvenient times.
But the flight crews are proud to put their training to use when they can fly to the aid of a patient in immediate need.
Weather and flight ‘seasons’
If a ground ambulance is at the location of a rural accident, that crew, often staffed by volunteer EMTs, can call to request a helicopter.
Cooperative weather is a key component for the flights. “It is pretty safe to say our pilots have gotten very good at looking at weather, but it can still change,” Bohlen said.
They must determine what conditions will be like on the way to a site, at the site, on the way back and for landing at the hospital. They take a conservative approach to weather, Bohlen said, for a safe helicopter flight and to avoid getting stuck at a site, unable to transport the patient or to take the next emergency call.
In Bohlen’s experience, flights can have “a bit of a season.” In the fall, the crews see more cardiac-related issues arise from hunting season and early snowfalls. In the winter, they see respiratory issues like the flu. And summer is “trauma season.”
From four-wheelers to fireworks to farming, trauma situations keep the flight crews busy. Bohlen worries about the inadvertent effects of COVID-19, too. With public pools closed in some cities, will more people visit lakes with no lifeguards? And those avoiding distant travel may do more outdoor activities.
“As you’re outside and having a good time … just be safe,” Bohlen urged. “Wear the helmet, take a second. Have fun, and be safe.”
But if something does happen, know that the Sanford AirMed crews dedicate themselves to doing everything they can to help.
“At the end of the day,” Bohlen said, “you can really say confidently, you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. There’s just no better feeling.”
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