Lifesaving flights front and center for air ambulance service

Life Flight provides service directly to and from this helipad on the south side of Providence St Mary Medical Center.

Life Flight provides service directly to and from this helipad on the south side of Providence St Mary Medical Center. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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PENDLETON — We don’t think about emergency medical transportation until the very moment we need it, other than pulling over to the side of the street at sirens blaring behind us. Or looking up as a helicopter whirs overhead.

The people at Life Flight Network, however, think about it constantly. Getting people here who are critically sick or have suffered severe trauma to bigger hospitals for more intense care is the best job in the world, they say.

Like Raul Marroquin, a flight paramedic who travels to the Life Flight regional base in Pendleton from his Walla Walla home for his 12-hour, three-day shifts.

“My goal was to find my dream job,” he said, explaining how he ended up in a flight suit, drinking Walla Walla Roastery coffee while waiting to man a helicopter on a Friday morning.

Not just any chopper, either, but a shiny new AgustaWestland AW119Kx Koala developed for Life Flight for speed, weather and space for a medical team ­— pilot, nurse and paramedic, all specially trained for flight emergency care. There is room for their equipment, medications and a slew of high-tech assistance. That includes satellite weather and tracking, synthetic sight, night-vision goggles, a ventilator and a video laryngoscope. “We carry most medications the hospitals have, so we can start the care right away,” Marroquin said.

Life Flight provides air transport throughout most of Southern Washington, Northern Oregon and Western Idaho, including patients from Providence St. Mary Medical Center and Walla Walla General Hospital.

Northwest MedStar’s critical care air service also serves communities Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, Western Montana and Northeastern Oregon. Based in Tri-Cities, the company has also added a new helicopter to its fleet, according to spokeswoman Jerrie Heyamoto of Northwest MedStar.

There appears to be plenty of air transport action from local health needs.

“We don’t get flight volume numbers,” said John Wooten, paramedic and Life Flight’s Pendleton base manager. “But I can tell you Walla Walla is a very big part of our business out of this base.”

The nonprofit company, based in Aurora, Ore., is the largest air ambulance provider on the nation. It took to the skies in 1978 as the first hospital-based air ambulance service on the West Coast and fourth in the nation, said Erick Borland, marketing director for Life Flight.

The company consisted of two bases in the Portland area until six years ago. In 2008, Life Flight executives saw a need for more bases and more aircraft to serve smaller hospitals in rural communities, Borland said. Now there are 15 locations, 20 aircraft and five ground ambulances, all of which have transported more than 90,000 patients in 35 years.

The Pendleton base opened in June 2012, and crews fly out every day, Wooten said. “It’s medical or trauma, car accidents or heart pain.”

Crews are encouraged to nap at work when they feel the need — the calls will come at any hour.

“There’s more chances we’ll be out at night,” Wooten said. “In my entire 23-year EMS career, it seems like at 11:30 p.m., I’m out the door. Especially on weekends.”

A patient with brain injury or a burn victim often requires local stabilization, meaning a helicopter flight from the accident scene to a local hospital, then a flight on one of Life Flight’s planes to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, he said.

People who arrive at a hospital in heart distress are the ones most often saved by a flight to cardiac care in Tri-Cities or Spokane, Marroquin added. And if a patient will need a second transfer to an ever larger facility, Life Flight crews will wait to make that second transfer.

Such care comes with a big price tag. While the actual dollar amount depends on numerous details — length of flight and condition of the patient, primarily — air medical transport can easily exceed $15,000, Borland said.

The weather is boss, crew members said. Air ambulance services and the Federal Aviation Administration learned the lesson 30 to 40 years ago, Wooten said — weather respects no mission.

Today’s crews across the industry receive no information about the nature of the call, so they can’t be tempted by emotion to fly in dangerous conditions or ignore fatigue factors. Visibility, ceiling height and wildfire smoke must also be evaluated hourly, said pilot Chris Holt. On a recent warm day with little wind the crew demonstrated its new Koala helicopter. In short order Marroquin and Holt have their passengers briefed.

“If the helicopter crashes, pull on this red strap,” Wooten said, pointing to the top of the back seat window. “Then you just push it out. But the big thing to do is whatever the pilot tells you.”

In his entire career, no one has needed the strap, he added.

Marroquin and Holt go through a preflight check of everything, making absolutely sure everyone’s microphones work.

“We can have all the fancy tools, but it all hinges on good communication,” Marroquin said.

Once up, the helicopter heads over a puzzle picture of farmland, river, city streets and foothills. The air current holds steady much of the ride, but takes the occasional dip and rise.

In the approach to Walla Walla, Holt points to the technology in front of him, where real obstacles show up in illustrated fashion on his Garmin screen. Wind machines come into “view” seconds before the human eye sees them on the horizon. The technology provides pilots with greater awareness of terrain and other aircraft in the area, he added.

Despite a head wind, in short order the Koala is back home in Pendleton, ready for a call to real duty. It’s bound to come any minute.

Said Marroquin: “Life Flight is getting progressively busier.”everything, making absolutely sure everyone’s microphones work.

“We can have all the fancy tools, but it all hinges on good communication,” Marroquin said.

Once up, the helicopter heads over a puzzle picture of farmland, river, city streets and foothills. The air current holds steady much of the ride, but takes the occasional dip and rise.

In the approach to Walla Walla, Holt points to the technology in front of him, where real obstacles show up in illustrated fashion on his Garmin screen. Wind machines come into “view” seconds before the human eye sees them on the horizon. The technology provides pilots with greater awareness of terrain and other aircraft in the area, he added.

Despite a head wind, in short order the Koala is back home in Pendleton, ready for a call to real duty. It’s bound to come any minute.

Said Marroquin: “Life Flight is getting progressively busier.”

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