Care in the air

Jeff Labine

They could be considered the unsung heroes of the sky.

Despite a storied history that dates back to 1946, the Saskatchewan Air Ambulance (SAA) isn’t as widely known as its non-profit counterpart STARS.

Launched as a lifeline in a rural province that boasted few major highways during the Second World War, SAA continues to play a vital role in transporting hundreds of critically ill and injured patients each year to the hospital care they need.

The two air ambulance organizations do work together from time to time but STARS employs helicopters while the SAA utilizes three King Air 200 twin turbo engine planes to reach the far corners of the province.

Based out of Saskatoon, the planes can travel to places like Stoney Rapids, other provinces and across the border to the United States. On board, usually, are two pilots alongside a paramedic and nurse who join forces during the missions.

Lisa Stewart, who has been a flight nurse with SAA for six years, said she and her partnered paramedic have different roles to play. Her role is to think more critically and organize care upon landing while the paramedic deals with the more immediate situation.

SAA tends to respond to critical care calls but the medical staff have to be prepared for any situation including childbirth.

Stewart has helped deliver two babies on board the plane so far.

“I had physicians with me both times,” she said. “We knew the patients were beyond four centimetres dilated. Very exciting to have babies. I love babies. I thought that’s where my career was going to take me. To now have the opportunity to have these little people in here has been pretty fun.”

She said delivering a baby thousands of feet in the air can be a bit stressful for the mother but everyone on board attempts to provide reassurance that babies have been born on the plane before.

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Over an 11 month period, 1,460 patients were transported by SAA, with the majority going to Regina General Hospital and the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon.

Everything is calculated to ensure the patient gets to where they need to go as quickly and as safely as possible.

It takes less than 30 minutes from the time of the call to the plane firing up, depending on the calls complexity

Pat Morris has seen it all, having worked as a paramedic for the past 39 years.  He vividly remembered the first call he responded to: a car versus train in Moose Jaw.

“Getting the guy out of the car, which was quite mangled, his legs were popped through his jeans,” he said. “The only thing I thought of at that time was ‘what am I doing’ type of thing. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

After that first call, Morris said he was hooked and jumped at the chance to learn more about emergency medicine, especially from the sky.

His first flight with SAA was around 1992 to a patient with chest pain.

“It was pretty cool to do it,” he said. “It became more formal in 1993 when (MD Ambulance) became a partner with Saskatchewan Air Ambulance and St. Paul’s Hospital being our base hospital. The Saskatoon Health Region was part of it. Sask. Health also [has] a part of it. All of those organizations are what we are today.”

David Mandzuk, the manager of SAA, said they have 80 employees ranging from medical staff to engineers. At the moment, there’s 24 flight nurses on staff, 14 paramedics and about 30 pilots.  Shifts are staggered over a 12-hour period.

Patients are usually brought from their locations to Saskatoon first for assessment and then transported to other facilities if needed.  Pediatric transportations are fairly common.  Last year, there was 355.  Mandzuk said there is no heart surgery program for children in Saskatchewan so those patients have to be flown to Edmonton.

“Our population just isn’t large enough to support that program,” he said. “So we transport those kids out. Yesterday, we transported a kiddy who was born on Friday. They had a congenital anomaly and took him, I think it was a boy, to Edmonton yesterday.”

It costs $425 per flight to travel with SAA.

Morris said he always tells patients they can work out the bill later; the first priority is ensuring they get the treatment they need.  Statistics show patients transported by air ambulance are more likely to survive than those transported by ground.

“It’s a good job,” he said. “I don’t know what else I would do actually.”

Saskatchewan Air Ambulance is the oldest formally organized non‐military air ambulance service in North America.

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