“Winner may be a small town, but the advantage with small towns is that people know each other and, for us, community is everything.”
Sophia Sawle is passionate about her home in South Dakota. The flight nurse with Guardian Flight 070 says it was the neighbor-helping-neighbor culture in Winner that enabled her and her flight crew to carry out one of their most complicated medical flights to date.
“It really did ‘take a village,’” she said. “Matt and I couldn’t have gotten this flight done without all the people in this town who helped us.”
The “Matt” Sawle is referring to is Flight Paramedic Matt Commeree, who along with Sawle, had to arrange and conduct an arduous medical transfer of a high-risk patient in late March 2023 that not only involved multiple city agencies and groups but also required intense, critical and strategic planning.
“We really had to think outside the box on this particular mission just because of the complexity and condition of the patient, who, in addition to other factors, was suffering from a series of illnesses,” said Commeree. “The situation became more difficult when the only ground ambulance in Sioux Falls that could help us move this patient to advance care in that same city, declined our request for help with no explanation as to why.”
Thankfully, another ground ambulance in Sioux Falls, Med Star, was able to help out after understanding the minimal equipment needed for the patient transfer. It was also around that time the flight crew decided the safest option for the patient to arrive in Sioux Falls would be by a Black Hawk Helicopter.”
“Black Hawks are pretty impressive,” said Sawle. “They have the capacity and essential tools to handle some of the most severe medical emergency cases out there. I was also able to borrow mats that could keep the patient comfortable, too.”
Commeree says that, while the crew had concerns about the transfer given all the outcomes that could happen, they made sure they were prepared for those possibilities.
“My experience in ground and air EMS has equipped me to find creative ways to safely handle situations like the one we faced. I have the ability to think two to three steps ahead, always having a Plan B, C and even D, if necessary.”
Commeree’s skill for figuring out the different scenarios that could transpire was put to use in one particular instance during the Black Hawk flight when the crew realized that one of the patient’s oxygen tanks had a leak. But thanks to good planning, the crew had brought along five portable D cylinders of oxygen, so extra oxygen was on hand and the patient was never in any danger.
In the end, the air medical trip, which involved six hours of planning and 90 minutes for execution, was a success.
From a hospital bed in Winner to a Black Hawk Helicopter to the Med Star ambulance in Sioux Falls and eventually, to the hospital where the patient would be treated, the entire journey was an example of pure, interagency cooperation at its highest level.
“This mission involved the talent and collaboration of the National Guard from Rapid City, Winner EMS and Fire Departments, who, in particular, really helped out; and of course, Winner Police, Med Star ambulance and the Sioux Falls Fire Department and others. So many people played a role in this accomplishment,” said Commeree, who added that in spite of being exhausted after the medical flight, he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. He says it was a great example of what can be achieved when you explore new ways for dealing with problematic patient flights.
Commeree advises other crews who find themselves in similar situations to take the time to think it through and set up the logistics. He says when crews search for new ways to transfer a medically challenging patient, breakthroughs happen.
“It’s important to always have a few backup plans as you develop your strategy,” he said. “In our line of work, we’re always looking for plans to handle those medical encounters that are the toughest and most complex, because we know they will lead to new advancements in the air and ground medical mobile field. The one we had just finished is not the last one that will require a thinking outside the box mindset. In fact, the next one could be an even more critical situation, so we want to be prepared for anything.”