Med Flight Memories
UW Health's emergency medical helicopter, UW Med Flight, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year.
It has been a quarter century of dramatic rescues and tiny, life-altering moments. Since it began, Med Flight has changed the lives of thousands of people across the region, including the staff who have offered their special kind of medicine.
A Few Med Flight Memories
The farmer headed out to the fields, secure that his dog, always trailing behind him, would warn him if the bull was nearby. In a split second, the dog was gone, and the farmer was on the ground, the bull repeatedly stabbing him.
As soon as Med Flight touched down on the farm north of Dodgeville, waiting emergency medical technicians (EMTs) hustled Michael Bowman, MD, the first Med Flight medical director, and a flight nurse to the injured farmer.
"I'll never forget the look on his face," remembers Dr. Bowman, professor of medicine at UW School of Medicine and Public Health, "It was that look of mortal fear."
Among his injuries, the farmer suffered multiple rib fractures and a punctured lung. His right lung collapsed, making it difficult for blood to fill his heart. At the same time, the man was bleeding into his right chest from lacerated blood vessels.
Dr. Bowman made an incision in the chest to release built-up air pressure and did an emergency intubation while the pilot alerted the trauma team at UW Hospital and Clinics that their patient needed to be rushed into surgery as soon as the helicopter landed.
The farmer survived. But months after the harrowing flight, he told Dr. Bowman he realized the outcome could have been much different without Med Flight's ability to get emergency medical care to him so quickly.
Dr. Bowman has many such memories. Over 22 years he made more than 1,500 flights until stepping down as a flight physician in July 2007. Michael Foley, MD keeps a folder of his Med Flight experiences. It's titled, "Why I Became a Doctor."
When he began recording his thoughts, he had no idea a heart-stopping flight in 2000 would end up first among his pages.
Med Flight had been dispatched more than 100 miles away to Mt. Morris, Illinois, where a young mother driving with her children had been critically injured when a car ran a stop sign and flipped her van. When Dr. Foley saw her, he knew that saving her would take all the skills he and the flight nurse had.
"I had never seen someone so pale. She was losing a lot of blood," he says. "The circumstances were so intense and the patient's injury was so severe, I was convinced she wouldn't make it." Dr. Foley and the flight nurse replaced the patient's blood—she needed four units in just 30 minutes.
"We resuscitated her twice during the flight, but she made it to the OR, and survived," Dr. Foley recalls. "It was one of those times when everything clicked."
In May 2008, after more than 20,000 total flights, Med Flight 1 crashed in the bluffs near LaCrosse, Wisconsin. All three crew members died in the accident—flight physician Darren Bean, MD, flight nurse Mark Coyne, RN, and pilot Steve Lipperer.
"We tragically lost three colleagues and friends," says Ryan Wubben, MD, current Med Flight medical director. "The most meaningful way we can remember them is to strive to provide the highest quality emergency care that all three were dedicated to providing."
Dr. Wubben says Med Flight was one of the first medical helicopter programs in the country to install a newly developed, helicopter-specific terrain awareness warning system, as well as night vision goggles.
"For us, it's important to acquire the latest safety equipment as soon as it becomes available," he says. "The dedication of Med Flight team members and attention to safety are big reasons why we can tell these amazing flight stories."
Today, 21 physicians, nine nurses, six pilots, three mechanics and nine dispatchers share duties on two helicopters in a program that is an integral part of emergency medicine at UW Hospital and Clinics and around the region. The service runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Med Flight cares for, and transports, critically ill or injured patients within a 250-mile radius in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan.
Date Published: 11/16/2010