Flying high again: Merger enhances peninsula emergency flight capabilities

Posted: Friday, November 27, 2009

Almost two years have passed since the medical helicopter based in Soldotna went down over Prince William Sound, killing all three crew members and the patient who was being flown from Cordova to Anchorage.

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An image on the bird's tail memorializes the victims of a crash that claimed the lives of four people two years ago.

Time has tempered the emotions of fellow flight crew members who knew and worked with the three who died Dec. 3, 2007, and Life Guard Alaska, the company that employed them has changed, but the three are remembered through the service of those who follow.

All crews rushing to board the replacement BK 117 helicopter based outside Central Peninsula Hospital these days must pass the initials of pilot Lance Brabham, flight nurse John Stumpff and paramedic Cameron Carter painted on the vertical tail portion of the aircraft.

Some worked side-by-side with the nurse or medic; some knew them from other medical care venues in Southcentral Alaska.

Flight nurse Stephanie Lovelace, who worked with Stumpff and Carter, recalls going through a grieving period after hearing of the accident. Not ever knowing exactly what happened made her feel most uneasy. The helicopter wreckage was never found.

Lovelace's love of flying and the enjoyment she gets from what she calls the great dynamics of being a flight nurse, however, will keep her on the job for as long as she can.

"It's very hard to want to leave," she said recently on the helipad behind the CPH Emergency Department.

In addition to the new helicopter, the merged company, LifeMed Alaska, which brought Life Guard Alaska and Aeromed International together, has a backup helicopter at the Soldotna Municipal Airport and has expanded the service available to Kenai Peninsula residents by adding Lear jets and other fixed-wing aircraft to transport patients beyond the 150-mile radius encompassing the entire peninsula.

One Lear 35 is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Anchorage along with a King Air 200 turboprop. A backup Lear 35 also is stationed there. In Fairbanks, a staffed Lear 35 is at the ready and the company has a staffed Caravan single-engine, fixed wing airplane based in Bethel. The company also has an AS 350 B2 or A-Star helicopter based at the Wolf Lake airstrip in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

With the Lears, LifeMed Alaska can take patients directly from Fairbanks or Anchorage to Seattle for advanced care and can fly younger patients to Children's Hospital in Portland, Ore., according to interim Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby.

LifeMed also has the capability of transferring patients from the Soldotna helicopter to a Lear jet at the Kenai Municipal Airport for a direct flight down to Seattle.

Because LifeMed has varying contracts with various insurance companies, Kirby was hesitant to quote prices for flights to Anchorage, but said a ballpark figure for a helicopter trip is $18,000 and it's about $8,400 for a fixed-wing flight.

"The advantage of a helicopter flight is it eliminates the need for a ground transfer," Kirby said. "They can take a patient directly to the hospital's pad, saving a lot of time in an emergency."

Soldotna flight nurse Peggy Jones says one of the "great things" about the LifeMed program is that all of the nurses have certified training as emergency nurses, as critical care nurses and as flight nurses.

Most LifeMed medics are Flight Paramedic Certified, Jones said.

An emergency room and trauma nurse in Maryland for 14 years before becoming a flight nurse nine years ago, Jones said she believes flight nurse is the pinnacle of the nursing profession.

"Flight nursing is as high as you can go in your field," she said.

"You have this autonomy ... being able to work in an environment where you don't have physicians and extra staff to go to," she said.

Lovelace, who was an intensive care nurse for 5 1/2 years before joining Life Guard as a flight nurse six years ago, concurs.

"You have the challenges of flight and you have to be autonomous," she said. "There's no button to press to get others to come help you.

"It makes you hone your skills," she said.

On a typical run, the helicopter has a crew of three: the pilot, a flight nurse and a paramedic.

In Soldotna, the nurses and paramedics work two 24-hour shifts each week, and while on shift, crews stay in one of three hospital rooms provided by CPH: one for pilots, one for nurses and one for medics. Additionally, two full-time aircraft mechanics are based at the Soldotna airport hangar where the backup helicopter is kept.

The BK 117 helicopter has what are referred to as "clam-shell doors" at the rear to open wide for patient loading and unloading.

Customarily the helicopter is set up to carry one patient with the flight nurse in a jump seat at the patient's head -- the "airway seat" as it is called. The paramedic sits on a bench seat next to the patient.

If necessary, a second patient can be carried on a bench alongside the first patient. In that case, the paramedic also sits in a jump seat at the head of the second patient.

Lovelace said crews all wear helmets, horseshoe personal flotation devices and four-point seat belts while in flight.

Thick, red, down-filled blankets and a car-type heater keeps patients warm in flight.

"We carry survival gear, avalanche beacons and snowshoes," she said, adding float coats are on board for use during flights over Prince William Sound or when responding to calls on offshore oil platforms in Cook Inlet.

"We have full capability for critical patients," she said.

"We are equipped with defibrillators, heart monitors and ventilators, and we are equipped for emergency baby deliveries," Lovelace said.

A typical flight to Anchorage is 30 to 35 minutes, she said.

"The nurse component makes it a critical care response team," Lovelace said.

In addition to transporting patients for CPH, South Peninsula Hospital in Homer and Providence Seward Medical Center, LifeMed responds to the scene of highway accidents on the Kenai Peninsula and is available to fire departments, oil rigs and locations across Cook Inlet, according to Jones.

"It's really an incredible resource for the community," she said.

Commenting on the merger of Life Guard and Aeromed, Kirby said it has enabled two companies with good track records to become a bigger group with more reach while maintaining a high level of training and staffing for crews.

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