Sunday, August 10, 2014

New Summit Air Ambulance provides long-distance transport: Family plans available for $65 a year, work with insurance

From left, Don Wells, flight paramedic and lead clinician, Travis Weiss, flight nurse, and Bob Gates, lead pilot for Summit Air Ambulance, are three members of an elite team helping to bring emergency care to critically injured and sick community members by way of a fixed wing aircraft that allows the same level of care as an ICU. 

It’s no secret Montanans love their state.

They love the wilderness, the wide open spaces, the long drives through mountain ranges and across prairies and all of the recreational activities that come with living in such territory.

But Montanans also acknowledge there are dangers present in Big Sky country that citizens of many other American states would never dream of: grizzly bears, wildfires and high-speed two-lane highways snaking up and down mountain switchbacks among them.

Additionally, Montana’s famed remoteness leaves many small towns and rural regions without a hospital or other options for adequate medical care in an emergency. It’s one of the few states in the country that is not equipped with a Level I trauma center, which provides the highest level of care for emergency patients.

But Helenans can now rest a little easier as they work and play in the Treasure State.

Summit Air Ambulance, an Idaho-based company, stationed a fixed-wing aircraft at the Helena Regional Airport in February to expedite treatment for trauma patients.

In the five months since its installation, the red and white Pilatus PC-12 aircraft hasn’t had much down time.

“That first week, we got six calls within 10 days,” said Bob Gates, the lead pilot at the Helena base.

Gates is one of four pilots certified to fly the 9,900-pound craft and is accompanied by one of four paramedics and one of four flight nurses on each flight.

The installation of the fixed-wing in Helena and an Augusta 109E Power helicopter in Bozeman filled a long-standing void of 24/7 on-call medical air transport for the Helena area.

“Before Summit came to Bozeman and here, our nearest resources were Missoula, Great Falls or Billings for air resources,” said Don Wells, a paramedic and Summit’s lead clinician.

“There’s this whole long corridor of Helena, Bozeman, Butte, all the way down to Dillon that really had, I don’t want to say no resources, but those resources were distant,” he said.

“It’s kind of opened up the door, and there’s a lot more resources now,” he said of Summit coming to Helena. “These communities have recognized that that level of service is beneficial.

“When you’ve got somebody (who is) critical, time is a factor,” he said.

With the new aircraft, flight crews can transport critical patients to almost any airport in the state in 80 minutes or fewer with the capability to fly to major trauma centers in Seattle or Salt Lake City in just about two hours.

Additionally, the use of a fixed-wing aircraft allows the crew to provide the same level of care that a patient would receive in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit with the added benefit of a pressurized cabin and a smoother flight than a helicopter might offer.

“We can go all the way up to 30,000 feet but keep that cabin pressurized to about 5,000 or 6,000 feet,” Gates said. “We keep it at this field elevation, as if they were on the ground here, all the way to Minneapolis.

“A huge difference is the weather capability,” he said. “Helicopters can’t take any kind of icing at all.”

The Pilatus comes equipped with multiple de-icing systems — on the propeller and both wings — and an infrared camera mounted on the tail to aid pilots’ vision at night or in bad weather.

“When we have those snowstorms, we can get up above it,” said Travis Weiss, a flight nurse with Summit. “Helicopters fly a lot lower.”

The plane can still fly in a variety of bad weather situations a helicopter couldn’t, including when “the bottom of the cloud deck can be as low as 200 feet above the ground with only a half-mile visibility,” Gates said.

Comfort and style

In its inaugural months, the Summit fixed-wing has flown patients all over the state and all over the country to receive a variety of treatments ranging from trauma care for wounds sustained from a grizzly attack to specialist care for cardiac or neurological trauma.

Once a patient is transferred into Summit’s air ambulance from a hospital or ground ambulance, the paramedic and flight nurse on board are well-equipped to make their journey as comfortable as possible.

The plane’s sleek, tan leather interior, designed by BMW, has all the luxury one would expect from a private aircraft with some additional features unique to Summit.

On the back half of the plane, a specially designed loading door accommodates easy access for stretcher sleds.

Huge backpacks filled with medical equipment ranging from intubation kits to delicate bottles of IV medication are stored in the back of the cabin behind two stations where patient sleds can be locked into place. Drawers filled with IV kits, catheters, bandages and more stack on either side of the front entrance and multiple outlets and hookups for oxygen are scattered throughout.

“We have a ventilator and six channels available for pump medications,” Weiss said.

“It’s a little bit of a chess game because you’re anticipating everything you’re going to need before you go,” Weiss said. “We’re going to hope for the best, and plan for the worst.”

Flight paramedics and nurses also pack what Weiss calls “the 10 essentials” in the pockets of their red flight suits: scissors, tape, extra bandages and medications included.

Additionally, crew members have the capability to regulate the cabin temperature. That gives them the ability to cool down patients with a fever or passively warm up those suffering from hypothermia, for example.

Weiss said the small plane can make the trip to major hospitals in Seattle, Denver or Salt Lake City relatively quickly when compared to a helicopter. A third seat in the cabin allows the crew to bring an extra passenger, especially in situations when they are flying to a facility out of state.

“The nice part is we can usually bring a family member,” he said.

Building relationships

This fall, Summit plans to station a helicopter at the Helena base in addition to the plane in order to expand transport capabilities in the area.

In the meantime, the organization is offering a new membership plan to members of the community.

For $65 a year, a Helena family could purchase a membership to Summit giving them access to all of its air transport services paid for in full by an insurance provider.

“They go to your insurance first,” Weiss said. “Anything beyond what insurance coves is taken care of.

“The idea is let’s get the community tied into us, let’s give that incentive,” he said. “Flights aren’t cheap.”

Weiss and Wells both noted Montanans’ enthusiasm for the outdoors and noted the membership plan would be beneficial for a wide variety of recreationalists.

“Anybody that drives, anybody that has a boat, anybody that skis, anybody that has a medical issue,” would benefit, Wells said. “Basically it’s a very low fee for a family.”

And while Summit is busy building relationships with community members, the organization is also building partnerships with local medical providers.

Katy Peterson, a spokeswoman for St. Peter’s Hospital and Medical Group, said the local hospital has enjoyed fostering collaboration with Summit.

“We’re just kind of getting our feet wet in the arrangement, but I think St. Peter’s is very happy to have an acute air transport service based right here in Helena,” she said.

She said the service is especially helpful for those patients experiencing specialized traumas — whether they are neurological, pediatric or otherwise — that in-state facilities do not usually have the resources to treat.

“Patient care is always our first priority, so we want to be sure in the few cases that patients need to leave Helena they get to their destination as soon as possible,” she said.

“We’re glad we can meet our community’s needs the majority of the time,” Peterson said. “But sometimes we need to go out of town, and these services allow us to do that.”

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