No 2 missions alike for Utah air ambulance

Crew members stay with life flight for the team camaraderie

By Matthew K. Jensen

The Herald Journal

Published: Wednesday, July 4 2012 7:44 a.m. MDT

Pilot Rob Anderson and nurse practitioner Judi Carpenter say no two flights are ever the same when flying as paramedics.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

LOGAN (AP) — Rob Anderson makes the trip from Ogden to Logan in just under 17 minutes.

The Life Flight pilot tracks a beeline through Avon Pass, cruising at 130 miles an hour from McKay-Dee Hospital Center in Weber County to Logan Regional Hospital before touching down gently on a landing pad outside the emergency room.

It's a surprisingly quiet ride inside the Bell 407 turbine-powered helicopter, flying high above the green mountains and valleys below. Anderson sits confidently in the right seat, alone at the controls of the $2 million aircraft. He's been flying for 12 years and has an impressive resume that includes 3,000 hours of helicopter flight time.

In the back, next to the spot where a patient lies, strapped to stretcher, is fellow crew member and nurse practitioner Judi Carpenter, who has been flying since 1990.

"I've been doing this for 22 years and no two flights are ever the same," she said. "When my pager goes off, you're at the utmost adrenaline-rushed focus ever."

With so much nursing experience under her belt, Carpenter says she thinks she'll know what to expect when dying patients are handed over to her and a paramedic's care.

"We go to a motor vehicle crash and I think I'll know what to expect," she said. "But you don't. Each crash is different and each patient is different."

Carpenter, who has both a master's and doctorate degree in nursing, says she chooses to stay with Life Flight because she enjoys the thrill of the work and camaraderie of being on a team.

"We tell each other everything," she said. "You see things on the job that you can't take home and discuss with your family. There is nothing boring about this job. My pager goes off and it's a 2-year-old drowning victim or a 90-year-old with cardiac arrest."

At 1,000 feet above the ground, Carpenter says she does her best to treat patients and has access to some of the most advanced life-saving equipment available in the crowded aircraft interior.

"You're focused on what you can do to help this patient and it's such a rewarding job because there's great teamwork and also autonomy," she added.

Intermountain Healthcare's Life Flight operation employs about 260 people, including aircraft mechanics, nurses, pilots and an army of emergency medical technicians — a majority of which work part-time for Life Flight and have a stay-at-home job as paramedics for local fire departments. Some of the pilots even have medical training although it's not a requirement for employment.

Anderson says pilots with emergency medical knowledge could run the risk of making in-flight decisions based on the patient's condition instead of executing missions solely on flight safety.

The chopper Anderson flies is one of four Life Flight helicopters in the state, based at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo and Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George. In addition, Life Flight flies three fixed-wing aircraft for long-distance missions and inter-facility transfers.

Life Flight spokesman KD Simpson says the entire operation is accredited by a national medical transportation commission and says Intermountain Healthcare's Life Flight aircraft are held to the strictest maintenance and safety practices.

SAR, or search and rescue operations, are Life Flight's second most important mission and the organization, in most cases, offers it at no cost.

"We can provide something that no one else can," said Simpson. "Even if you can have a top-notch search and rescue team with the best climbers in the world, there is a danger factor for them."

Two of Life Flight's helicopters are equipped with a hoist for plucking victims from mountainsides without putting additional rescuers in the same dangerous pinch.

"Flying search and rescue missions up in the mountains is challenging," said Anderson. "Especially if it's at night. Even with the night vision goggles, it's quite dark up there and generally when you're in the mountains and there's wind, you have to be really careful."

Simpson says Life Flight donates its time and service to SAR missions year-round and only collects a fee if a patient is transported to a hospital. If the patient is rescued and flown to a command base, the helicopter pilot and crew simply do their job and depart with no questions asked.

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