Crucial difference

Dusk was approaching as Calstar 7, the Central Coast’s first dedicated air ambulance, returned to its base at the Santa Maria Public Airport, having come from the scene of an accident. But before the helicopter could touchdown, the crew received a new call for assistance: A man had a high-speed collision on his all-terrain vehicle, which launched him over the handle bars into a gully full of boulders. His condition was unknown.

As the helicopter approached the accident scene, the primary and secondary flight nurses kept a lookout for power lines, trees and boulders. With darkness growing, finding a suitable place to land on the uneven terrain became tricky. The anticipation of finding out what injuries their patient had suffered kept crew members on their toes.

“Your adrenaline is pumping, your heart is racing because you don’t know what to expect,” said flight nurse Jared Olson. “Your thoughts are racing about what [the injuries] could be, and you’re thinking about what tools you have to help that individual.” And help they did.

Within 10 minutes, the patient, who was unconscious when the crew arrived and had head trauma, fractures to his extremities and possible chest and spinal injuries, was hustled into the aircraft. There, his heart rhythm and rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure and temperature were monitored by equipment similar to what is found in ambulances and intensive care units.

Once the helicopter was airborne again, the flight nurses began giving care, including inserting a breathing tube into the patient and putting him on a ventilator. “[The patient had] no long-term effects from his injuries,” Olson said. “Because we were able to care for his initial injuries, he was able to have the surgeries he needed right away, and he is able to continue on with his life.”

Between 25 and 40 percent of Calstar transports are from accident scenes, where patients are picked up from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties and are taken to Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria or Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara.

Because it can take a ground ambulance several hours to reach remote locations, such as Cuyama and Hollister Ranch, Calstar’s presence on the Central Coast can make a crucial difference in the outcome of a patient’s health and the length of his or her hospital stay, by cutting down travel time to less than an hour.

“If we’re not here, the closest air ambulance to the south is in Anaheim and to the north is Salinas,” said Lisa Abeloe, chief flight nurse for Calstar 7. “[The 45-minute fight] is additional time the patient has to wait to begin their transport to a hospital.”

Calstar 7’s base is home to two Bell 222 helicopters, four pilots and eight nurses who are on call 24 hours a day. Each helicopter can carry up to two patients, along with the pilot and two flight nurses, and can fly through any kind of weather, with the exception of fog.

The aircraft needs an area of only 75 feet square to set down, and can land on most terrain, including grass, river rock or sand.

Each flight nurse has to have had trauma experience in a hospital, like in an intensive care unit or emergency department.

Suz Roehl, a flight nurse who spent years in ICUs and emergency departments, said she loves the challenge that comes from working in pre-hospital situations. “You don’t know what’s coming at you,” she said. “Every call is different, so you’re constantly being challenged. You work with your partner to see how good you can make a call turn out.”

Olson said that, though everything at the scene of an accident moves very quickly, he relies on his training and experience to ensure things run smoothly. “You know exactly what you’re supposed to do … and you go through everything you need to for that patient in a systematic manner,” he said. “You’re constantly assessing and anticipating anything that could go wrong and you try to be one step ahead so you can prevent it.”

Billy-Jade Achiu, another flight nurse, said she enjoys being able to work with other emergency response teams. She added that working out how to best care for a patient comes from cooperation. “Whether you are fire, paramedics, law enforcement, whether you are Calstar or a hospital, we all have the same goal in mind: keep people alive as well as you can to live a quality life,” she said. “We admire all the people that work along with us that help us, and we are appreciative of what they do for us.”

For the Calstar 7 nurses, being able to care for people and give them a better quality of life is the biggest reward they receive for their hard work and risk taking.

“You get in a zone when [a patient is] really sick,” Roehl said .“You just say, ‘How can I keep their brain and vital organs going and get them back to their family member.’”

Achiu agreed. “The greatest thing is to actually be able to see what you have done — actually made a difference in that person’s life,” she said. “Whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual, you’ve done something to affect that person.”

Posted in Local on Tuesday, November 30, 2010 1:45 pm

By Leah Thompson / Staff Writer / lthompson@santamariatimes.com Santa Maria Times

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