Air ambulance team gives patients flying start

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THERE'S a bright red flying intensive-care unit in Manitoba.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/06/2012 (3703 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THERE’S a bright red flying intensive-care unit in Manitoba.

The STARS air ambulance helicopter has barely enough room for the medical team to keep their knees from banging the patient’s stretcher. But that highly trained medical staff regularly overcomes the space challenges to offer speedy and precise care, having responded to more than 300 patient calls in Manitoba since April 2011.

“We’ve just brought the emergency room into the air, and bring it straight to the patient on the ground, on the side of the road, in the backyard, wherever they may be,” flight nurse Rhonda Kaluzny said.

Melissa Tait Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press The STARS air ambulance medical team has little room to manoeuvre in the back of the helicopter, but access to a variety of critical-care equipment.

STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society) is a non-profit air ambulance service headquartered in Alberta. The recent Winnipeg addition is based just west of the airport and has signed on to serve Manitoba until 2022.

The back compartment of the Eurocopter BK117 is about the length of a road ambulance but half the width.

Jam-packed with specialized equipment hanging from the ceiling and built into the walls, there is just enough room for a patient on a stretcher and as many as three medical staff to sit, stooped on tiny benches.

Melissa Tait Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press Air ambulance teams' tight quarters.

Besides the cramped workspace, the responding teams have to handle flight motion, vibration and communication issues while wearing flight helmets.

Kaluzny and flight paramedic Grant Therrien are trained in critical-care response, which means they can complete advanced procedures, such as intubating to open a patient’s airway, or inject medications usually available only in an emergency room.

They can do it all in a tilting helicopter while strapped into a seat.

Melissa Tait Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press Flight nurse Rhonda Kaluzny (foreground) and flight paramedic Grant Therrien load a stretcher into the back of the STARS air ambulance, a Eurocopter BK117, on Tuesday.

“The biggest challenge is when a patient deteriorates and you’re in the back, reaching for equipment, and you’re just doing your best to keep that patient alive until you get to the hospital,” Therrien said.

Kaluzny is still nervous every time a call comes in.

“It’s hard enough to get an IV into a vein correctly in an emergency room,” Kaluzny said. The common but delicate procedure is difficult in the tight space and with the flight motion.

Melissa Tait / Winnipeg Free Press Flight paramedic Grant Therrien looks out the window of the STARS air ambulance Tuesday.

The cramped quarters and vibration are simulated during the STARS medical staff training.

The air ambulance is “a link in the chain in medical response,” but the speed and the specialized care separate the helicopter ambulance from traditional transport, Therrien said.

In Canada, up to 70 per cent of trauma deaths are in rural areas. While the population is lower in rural Manitoba, many of the calls STARS responds to involve people travelling to or from urban areas, said base director Jon Gogan.

For the medical team — who work 12-hour shifts on base — knowing their speed has made a difference in patients’ survival is hugely rewarding.

On one call, there was so little time between arrival and treatment, the team was removing their equipment from a patient at the same time as operating-room staff prepped the patient for surgery, Kaluzny said.

“You just never know what’s going to happen, so it makes every call exciting.”

melissa.tait@freepress.mb.ca

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