When the call goes out to handle a critically injured person at a motor vehicle collision, or a patient has to be transferred from one medical facility to another because of absolute necessity, the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society is there to answer.
Grande Prairie is the base for a STARS helicopter to serve northern Alberta. Spotlight recently went to their base to see their operations and interview one of the crews about their experiences in the field, and what motivates them to serve. Here is their story.
Pilot Geo Rawlins
He has been flying out of the Grande Prairie base for two years. He worked at the STARS base in Regina before that. He also worked in the commercial helicopter industry.
His appreciation for air ambulance service came seven years ago. His niece was injured while skiing and she was transported by STARS.
“That feeling of helplessness you get when you see a loved one being transported by STARS, that really turned on a light bulb in my mind. I decided that, a) this is an organization that I wanted to be part of and, b) start earning a living by helping people. So STARS seemed like a good fit.”
He upgraded his flight qualifications over several years and became a STARS pilot in 2013.
During operations, one pilot handles the flight duties while the other handles things like the radio, ensures all doors and latches are properly secured, loads the GPS coordinates if required and handles administrative tasks.
One of the more memorable landings for him was on a railroad track south of Grande Prairie. There was just enough clearance to make a vertical landing, which allowed the medical personnel to be among the first on site.
The pilots are in constant communication with the dispatch centre during the trip to the site, to ensure they are aware of what the other first responders are doing. Once the helicopter reaches the site, the pilots switch over to the local first responders about landing and takeoff.
Most of their patient transports are to Grande Prairie, with about 25 per cent going to Edmonton. The helicopter can handle two patients if time is critical, but they prefer to transport only one because of the cramped conditions inside.
Transporting a patient by helicopter makes the difference for patient survival, he adds.
“Having the ability to land right at the site and drop off right at the hospital, (means that the patients) are avoiding the nasty, bumpy industrial roads and slippery highways. That’s what STARS is all about, using a helicopter as opposed to a fixed-wing (aircraft).”
Helipads in smaller/rural communities can also make a difference, saving time by going straight to a transport site for patient pickup.
“Every hospital should have one, for sure.”
Dust, power lines, loose debris and other safety hazards are always a factor for landings and takeoffs. Sometimes they have to land without a first responder guiding them in, but they have standard operating procedures for their safety.
But to improve safety for night operations, they have access to night vision goggles. STARS as an organization has had access to them since 2003.
“I think they’re as important as having a helicopter, to do the job we do. You don’t want to be without them.”
Sometimes STARS acts as a patient transfer service:
“If they are time sensitive and there’s no other resource available, or the helicopter is the best resource for that case. Over a greater distance, a fixed-wing (aircraft) will have a huge speed advantage. The helicopter shines in the mid-range and closer range. It becomes more important or more appropriate to use a helicopter, if there’s a helipad at the hospital we’re leaving from and one that we’re going to, (and) at the receiving hospital as well. Then you don’t have to muck about with a transfer.”
Pilot Steve Kappelar
He has served with STARS for eight years. The schedule and being able to provide a public service appeal to him.
“I like the job that we do for people. It’s a good service for people and I really enjoy doing that. There’s a great sense of satisfaction doing that for people.”
He and his crew are normally on call for 12-hour days, sometimes a little longer, for two or three weeks at a time.
For anyone thinking about becoming a pilot for STARS, he says, “Go for it.”
“It’s a good job. It’s a difficult job to get into and requires a certain amount of experience. If you can get that experience, go for it.”
Flight Nurse Marla Tabler
She is a registered nurse and has been with STARS for just over four years.
Prior to this, she handled medivac flights out of Alaska, as well as the ICU and the hospital emergency ward. Being a flight nurse has a certain is very appealing to her.
“It’s dynamic, an ever-changing environment. You never know what you’re going to, or know how long it’s going to take you. In the hospital, you have different patients all the time, but this adds a whole other element. Are we going to be able to get to the patient? How are we going to get the patient extricated? How are we going to get them out of a certain area? How are we going to stabilize them without all the resources that we have in the hospitals? It’s really challenging and it’s lots of fun.”
The helicopter is a “flying ICU” as she calls it. The onboard equipment includes a ventilator; an endoscopy and camera; an electrocardiogram unit; and chemical blankets to keep the patient warm. She stays in contact with an on-call physician during transport and upon landing at the hospital. She can transmit images of the patient’s readings, such as from the ECG, to the physician via an Apple iPhone. The physician can then offers her and the flight paramedic guidance.
The space for her and the flight paramedic in the back of the helicopter is very small, but everything is within reach.
“The small environment is helpful that way and it’s nice because I’m really close to the patient. If they start moving, I can tell if they’re pain is probably increasing or if they’re nauseous. I can hold their hand if they’re scared.”
Transporting one patient, instead of two patients, is ideal because of the cramped conditions.
“But we will take two patients if there’s an access issue, generally.”
She and the flight paramedic work as a team, which includes bouncing ideas off each other.
Moreover, they and the pilots work together and think of the patient as theirs.
“It involves all of us. We need to keep in mind how long we’re going to be on the scene. If we’re going to be there a long time to extricate the patient, we need to let the pilots know that. They need to be able to plan for fuel. Do they need to shut down? So you have to be in communication with them a lot.”
Anyone who’s considering a career has a flight nurse should keep these factors in mind.
“It takes a certain personality. You have to be fairly confident in your skills and be aware that you’re going to be put in difficult situations. It’s absolutely the most rewarding job I can think of, but you also have to be prepared. Make sure you get some experience. Make sure you get some critical care behind you. Make sure you get all your certifications.”
Flight Paramedic Jamie Pollock
He’s been with the Grande Prairie STARS base since 2006. Prior to that, he worked with ground ambulances and in other capacities.
Being a flight paramedic was another opportunity for him to provide critical care for patients.
There’s a lot of communication during the flight to the site, including as much planning as possible for the patient’s care.
During patient transport, he and the flight nurse will discuss things like the patient’s condition. His role is also to control things like the patient’s ventilator.
The flight nurse and flight paramedic can also change their roles. The flight nurse can handle one part of patient care and the flight paramedic will handle the rest.
For someone contemplating his career, he says:
“It’s exciting. It’s different. There’s something different every day. You have to study hard and (being a flight paramedic) is a lot of work.”
There’s continuous education, he adds.
She works as the Senior Municipal Relations Liaison for the STARS Foundation in Grande Prairie.
“I work with all the municipalities throughout … the province, as well as the town councils. (What’s) most important is to continue to unite the entire province in something that we’re very privileged to have as Albertans. We’re fortunate that … we’ve had STARS in Alberta now for 30 years and it’s because of the generosity of Albertans and people coming together.”
All of the municipalities in northern Alberta have been a lifeline for the STARS base in Grande Prairie, she adds.
“They’re a good part of the reason that we’re still here today. We will be celebrating 10 years this year. In the north, we have unanimous support from every municipal district, country, town and village. We’re hoping that we continue to take that across the province and unite all Albertans, so that we (can) continue to make sure that we have STARS service available for future generations.”
She also says there are many cases of critical care in rural hospitals that are transferred to a higher level of care, as well as recreational incidents and motor vehicle collisions where the STARS helicopter is utilized.
Farnden provides annual updates to the municipalities about the service STARS provides in their areas.
She provided statistical information about STARS service in northern Alberta for 2011-2015. Please see the chart with this story.
STARS is a non-profit charitable organization and relies on fundraising for its operations. This includes a lottery, which has had a sellout for 22 years straight. The lottery has generated $11 million annually, providing enough money for one base’s operations for the year.
On the whole, it takes about $36 million annually to operate STARS in Alberta.
The Alberta government provides about 24 per cent of STARS’ money, so the rest has to be acquired through fundraising.
STARS operates three bases in Alberta, two in Saskatchewan and one in Manitoba.