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Chopper to support air ambulance system

New service could save up to 50 lives a year

Chopper to support air ambulance system
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Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) website

BY SUSIE STRACHAN
Winnipeg Health Region
Published Wednesday June 29, 2011

The province has hired a helicopter service to provide air ambulance support throughout Manitoba - a move that could save as many as 50 lives a year.

Provincial Health Minister Theresa Oswald said the service will be used to transport critical care patients who are hard to reach by ground ambulance or fixed-wing aircraft.

"From major car accidents, to stroke victims, to very sick babies, all of which are terrifying events, having rapid access to health care is critical," Oswald said yesterday during a press conference.

The chopper service will be provided by Alberta-based Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS), a non-profit organization that currently provides helicopters and crews to Alberta Health Services.

Yesterday's announcement means the helicopter service - which has been in place since April 1 as part of the province's flood fighting efforts - will now be a permanent feature of the province's air ambulance system.

Early indications are that the service will be extremely useful in helping patients in need. Since arriving in Manitoba, the STARS helicopter and flight crew, consisting of two pilots, a paramedic and a nurse, has responded to 60 calls and transferred 34 critically-ill patients to hospital.

Pilot Bob Toews said the helicopter service is able to transport patients within a one-hour flying range of Winnipeg, or within a 250 km radius. The range can be extended by obtaining fuel at other airports and forestry bases.

"The helicopter is able to pick up patients at smaller hospitals and transport them to Winnipeg. In the case of a major automobile collision, we are a resource for small medical facilities, where we can fly in a physician to help the physician already working on the patients. Large crashes can overwhelm a rural facility, so they like to know we offer this kind of resource," said Toews.

The provinces' fixed-wing air ambulances will continue to do longer-haul flights, transporting patients from locations throughout the province. Toews said the two services complement each other, in that the helicopter is able to land on open spaces such baseball diamonds, highways or fields in order to pick up patients from rural health facilities that don't have an airport.

Flight paramedic Chad Hegge said half of the patients being transported are trauma or cardiac cases, both of which need critical care. The other group is patients with blood infections, or inter-hospital transfers of critically-ill patients.

"We are not first responders, but we can handle anything on board the helicopter that might be done in an emergency room," said Hegge.

Currently, the helicopter service flies patients from various locations to a base at the James Richardson International Airport in Winnipeg. From there, patients are transferred via ambulance to Health Sciences Centre.

But that will change with the construction of a helipad on top of the new $39 million diagnostic imaging building planned for the Health Sciences Centre campus.

The proposed seven-storey building will house state-of-the-art diagnostic imaging equipment and provide a site for all diagnostic services used by Children's Hospital.

Located between the Children's Hospital and the Anne Thomas Building on William Avenue, the building's helipad will also provide the helicopter with direct access to Children's and Adult Emergency.

"The added benefit of the helipad at HSC will improve the speed with which critically injured people can get to Manitoba's trauma centre for care," said Real Cloutier, Chief Operating Officer of the Winnipeg Health Region.

Construction on the new diagnostic imaging building and helipad is set to begin in August and be completed within two years. It is expected that more than $10 million in equipment will be located in the new facility, including:

  • A new pediatric MRI, waiting room, nursing station and support spaces;
  • An upgraded pediatric CT scanner;
  • An upgraded adult/pediatric cardiac catheterization lab; and
  • A new operating room and angiography suite.

 "This new facility enhances Winnipeg's expert imaging and diagnostic tools, both for children and adults," said Cloutier.

Until the new facility is complete, pediatric patients will continue to use the current pediatric MRI program that has an existing machine at Health Sciences Centre.

The new facility will be located beside the Ann Thomas Building, which contains the adult and pediatric emergency departments, critical-care centres and operating rooms, and will be connected to the Children's Hospital and to the future Women's Hospital by tunnels and skywalks.

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