Saturday, October 28, 2017

Hooked on AirCare: Good Sam invites medical professionals to ride along

KEARNEY — As a child in Gothenburg, Luke Ballmer lived close to the hospital. When he heard the medical helicopter overhead, he’d leap onto his bicycle and race over to watch it. “Being in that flight program was all I ever wanted to do,” he said.

Now 31, Ballmer is a flight nurse on CHI Health Good Sam’s AirCare helicopter. He calls it the best job in the world, and his enthusiasm is contagious. This spring, as part of AirCare’s 35th anniversary, he launched the Ride-Along program so he could share it with others.

The program, which took him a year to develop, offers AirCare rides to EMS professionals, physicians, registered nurses, physician’s assistants and law enforcement officers at least 18 years old so they can see firsthand the intricacies of quickly transporting critically ill or badly injured patients to medical centers. So far, 25 area professionals have participated, and 10 more are scheduled.

“I hope they see the passion,” Ballmer said. “We do awesome things in high levels of critical care during ‘the Golden Hour,’ or the period of time from an accident, stroke or heart attack, to definitive care. We carry blood. We do life support. We insert chest tubes and do advanced airway procedures. The helicopter has saved numerous lives.”

Ballmer’s first ride on a medical chopper in Omaha during his EMT training “sealed the deal” for his career. “I liked critical care, going to get the patient to take them to a higher level of care.” He earned his degree as a registered nurse at BryanLGH College of Health in Lincoln in 2009 and joined Good Sam as a flight nurse in 2013.

AirCare is the second-oldest medical helicopter program in Nebraska, second only to one in Omaha. It averages 435 missions a year, or roughly 40 per month, or seven to 10 a week. The chopper usually carries one patient, but it can transport two under certain conditions.

Josh Kendle, 29, a registered nurse at CHI St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Lincoln, went up three times during his 12-hour stint not long ago. In his first ride — his first ever in a helicopter — a victim was airlifted from an accident to Good Sam in just five minutes. In the next two flights, patients were transferred between hospitals. Kendle was so impressed that he hopes someday to be part of a flight team.

“I find emergency air care fascinating. The care the flight nurses gave was exceptional. From the minute they came into contact with the patient, they had everything under control,” he said.

Good Sam’s AirCare service was launched in 1982 by World War II veteran Ronald Rodgers of Kearney. The five-year-old Bell429 helicopter is leased from and maintained by Rodgers Helicopter Service at Kearney Regional Airport. The chopper has two seats for the flight nurses and a stretcher ready with items such as a portable ventilator, a video laryngoscope and a machine called a Lucas device, which performs CPR and frees flight nurses to tend to patients.

Ride-Along passengers cannot weigh more than 215 pounds. They are weighed when they arrive at the hospital for the program. They must hold a current medical license in Nebraska or Kansas and be clinically active in a hospital or hospital-based system. Because of weather concerns, Ride-Alongs are scheduled only from March through June and September through November. In thick fog, the chopper does not fly.

On the day of the ride, they arrive at Good Sam at either 6:30 a.m. or 6:30 p.m. They stay for a full 12-hour shift. They must be on site because the helicopter lifts off within 12 minutes after a call comes in. Between rides, the passengers visit the Emergency Department, the intensive care unit, the cath lab and other areas. They also get a safety briefing by the AirCare pilot.

Because Good Samaritan has the only trauma center between Lincoln and Scottsbluff, about 65 percent of AirCare flights bring patients in to Kearney. The remaining flights take patients, once stabilized, to Denver, Omaha or Kansas City. Its coverage area includes central Nebraska west to McCook, north to South Dakota and south into Kansas.

Jason Whalen, an EMT and fire administrator for the Kearney Volunteer Fire Department, can’t say enough about his recent AirCare ride even though he’s no stranger to trauma care and emergency medicine. Thanks to a strong tailwind, it took just 19 minutes to fly to Ord to pick up an accident victim. “The staff was so professional,” he said. “The flight staff and the emergency room staff in Ord worked well together. My AirCare ride was fabulous.”

Born north of Greeley, Whalen knows how critical AirCare is to people who live in sparsely populated areas. He always hoped to become a flight nurse, but when he was in the National Guard, a friend talked him into a career in the fire department. He has no regrets. “I have the best of both worlds,” he said, adding, “Getting my pilot’s license is now on my bucket list.”

AirCare pilots include Elliot Rivera, Ryan Kennedy, Shon Keith and Matt Volf. Besides Ballmer, flight nurses are Sara Slingsby, Joan Kreutzer, Stephanie Sydow, Kevin Vickers, Joseph Debban, Tammie Preissler, Kari Yelken, Denise Poland and Megan Thorman.

Kendle added, “I would strongly urge my colleagues to go for a fly-along to gain experience and learn from some of best. The staff made the experience unforgettable.”

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