Healers from the sky

By By Ana Breton

By Ana Breton

Strapped inside a helicopter stretcher hovering more than 1,000 feet above the ground, a patient lies face up in a 4-foot by 10-foot space with three paramedics crammed by his side.

All he can see is the grayish ceiling, and all he can hear is the palpitating thunder from the helicopter’s blades.

For some, it may seem like a claustrophobic nightmare, for others, a second chance at life.

This is the hope of the AirMed team at University Hospital, which transports and rescues more than 2,500 people each year.

What each patient will be like is unpredictable. How staff members handle each one, however, is planned to a T, said Ken Matthews, chief flight nurse and AirMed program director.

The AirMed staff comprises about 115 crewmembers that, depending on each one’s individual job, monitor, inspect or staff each of the six helicopters.

Depending on what each emergency calls for, the helicopter staff is made up of a nurse, paramedic, obstetrics nurse and/or preemie nurse.

Because emergencies could happen at any given time, members of the AirMed are on call at all times, sometimes working more than their scheduled 12-hour shift.

The helicopter’s headquarters, located on the same floor as the emergency room, have a connecting room equipped with a bed and a refrigerator.

Mostly pilots use the room because, according to hospital rules, they have to be completely alert while flying.

Jason Brown, who has been an AirMed pilot for six years, said working in a demanding environment can sometimes be frustrating.

“Sometimes you’re woken up at 2 or 3 in the morning and you have to go from deep sleep to fully awake,” Brown said.

AirMed helicopters generally service a 160-mile radius, Matthews said, but will fly anywhere in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Colorado or even as far as the Mississippi River if it is needed.

Locally, AirMed has three bases in northern Utah and in Rock Springs, Wyo.

AirMed, however, also treats patients from “scene” accidents, which can be any incident that an ambulance cannot reach fast enough.

The staff has to consider each situation before liftoff, including medications and equipment a patient will need, how much fuel the helicopter will use and the current temperature and wind speed.

Because each helicopter can only hold 9,300 pounds, patient weight is also considered. AirMed crewmembers must weigh fewer than 210 pounds with corresponding gear, a rule passed about four years ago.

“We try to match the patient with the appropriate aircraft and team to get them here safely,” Matthews said.

On average, 25 to 30 flights are taken every month, Matthews said.

“There’s a lot of waiting, because you have no idea when you’re going to leave or what your patients are going to be like,” said Lindsey Little, an AirMed nurse.

Little, along with six other obstetrics nurses, is on call for emergencies involving expecting mothers and infants.

No babies are delivered directly on the helicopter because of its instability. Rather, newborns are delivered “on the scene” and transported back to the hospital.

“Getting babies to survive is the best feeling in the world,” Little said.

Not every ride is the same, though, Matthews said.

“There’ve been times where the helicopter is filled with so much blood that it seeps out the door, sprays along the sides, and leaks out the flight so the whole helicopter is covered with blood,” Matthews said. “There’s never any day like the next.”

The AirMed staff is trained to deal with any type of situation, from trauma to cardiac problems.

“In this environment, someone may be having the worst day of their life, while someone else may be having the last day of their life,” Matthews said. “Your job is to bring direction to the situation for the patient’s safety.”

“It’s the best job in the world,” Brown said. “Your office is the sky, the world’s safety at your fingertips.”

Lisa Teran

Pilot, registered nurse and Project Manager of AirMed Ken Matthews explains some of AirMeds’ duties in front of one of the U’s four AirMed helicopters.