No Room for Error

February 25, 2022

“You have to be as accurate as possible so you don’t make a mistake; there are just so many factors that could go wrong.”

David “Bud” Morriss couldn’t have articulated his words any clearer as he tried to explain the precision and detail planning that’s involved in conducting a multi-stop, air-med flight that’s carrying a high-risk patient. Morris, a Program Director at Air Evac Lifeteam (AEL) 26 in Ada, Oklahoma, a member of Global Medical Response’s family of solutions, was specifically describing a patient transport on January 27, 2022. That’s when he saw a Facebook post by an area doctor, asking for the community’s help with transporting a patient from Holdenville, Oklahoma to Rio Rancho, New Mexico, since all professional aircrafts had refused to make the flight. Morriss, who was then tagged in the post, started looking into why AEL declined it.

“The distance wasn’t the issue. It was the patient,” said Morriss. “The patient was declined a fixed-wing aircraft transport due to the patient’s size and need for oxygen. After I talked to the doctor, he understood my rationale.” But given the attention this request had received on social media, Morriss decided to ask his colleague, Ben McFarland, Program Director at AEL 158 in nearby Seminole if he and his team could help. The two bases, which often share staff and aircrafts, have worked together when situations call for collaboration.

“After I talked to Ben, I contacted the on-duty crew for AEL 26, which consisted of a pilot with AEL 26, who was in Seminole that day and a med team, made up of a nurse and paramedic with AEL 158,” said Morriss. “I explained the request and possible alternatives. Thirty minutes later, the crew called me back, expressing concern for this patient and wanted to see if we could plan out a route to safely take this patient all the way to New Mexico by rotor.”

From that point onward, Morriss, McFarland and staff at both bases began developing a strategy.

“We were all involved in the flight planning from the start,” said Steven Newton, Paramedic with AEL 158, who, along with Nurse Danielle Siemers, made up the med team on the flight. “The pilot from Ada, Ty Calderwood, and the pilot who is assigned to our base in Seminole began handling the fuel calculations and time estimates. The nurse and I began doing oxygen calculations and other planning.”

After nearly four hours, a carefully architected schedule was in place. The crew would pick up the patient from Holdenville Hospital by helicopter, fly to the AEL base in Elk City, Oklahoma for oxygen and fuel, then, fly to Amarillo, Texas with a stop at the North Texas Life Star Base for more fuel and oxygen, and then, fly to Tucumcari, New Mexico for a last fill up of fuel before heading to the final destination at Rio Rancho.

Everything went fairly smoothly until the crew hit a severe snowstorm, just west of Tucumcari, New Mexico.

“When the snowstorm happened, we turned around and returned to North Texas Medical Center in Amarillo, said Newton. “We lost heat in the aircraft on the way back, but we were able to manage that by covering the patient with the blankets we had, putting hot packs on the patient, and starting some warmed IV fluids.” he said.
The crew eventually reached Texas safely and was able to transport the patient to the base’s hospital, where doctors confirmed that the patient didn’t need to be transferred again and that they could properly treat the patient at their facility.

 It was a “mission impossible” turned “mission accomplished” for a brave crew, who, up until this flight, had never worked with each other.

“Our nurse, Danielle, is new. She’s never worked with Steven. The pilot, Ty, has also never flown with Danielle or Steven, for that matter,” said McFarland, who goes on to emphasize the professionalism of this team. “These three people had to put aside any possible differences they might have had and focus on the mission of safely transporting a patient. At AEL, nothing is done on an aircraft that’s not in agreement. The med crew, a nurse and medic, have to be 100 percent together on making any decisions,” he said.

Newton agrees, saying that the mission’s success was largely due to everyone involved, faithfully carrying out his or her specific duty.

“This flight was made possible because everyone stepped up and helped where they could,” said Newton. “We couldn’t have made it without the crews at Elk City Base and at the North Texas Life Star Base, who were always happy to give us fuel, supplies and put oxygen on board for us. Ben and Bud were also there for us, watching our movements online, checking in with us throughout the flight and coordinating with the other bases to make sure we had what we needed. The pilot was excellent and kept his cool in the snowstorm. The nurse and I had no hang ups. So, yeah, I would take this flight again with this same crew any time.” 
Not a bad assessment for crew members who came together as strangers but left with a sense of mutual respect for the skill and expertise each one brought to a mission that, while immersed with a string of challenges from the start, served as the main and focal purpose that kept them all unified.

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