Missoula St. Pat’s Life Flight Program: We Will Find You

Editor’s note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Jule Banville, to create a new Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views and issues. We’re excited to provide these students with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By RUSSELL GREENFIELD

The road had no name, even if you could find it on a map. Local kids knew it as the “road to the rope swing.” The western side cut into the mountains, while the east followed along a steep drop to the river. Fifteen miles back, over a bridge across the Flathead River and down another 10-mile stretch, you could get to the nearest town. Cell phone coverage wouldn’t even be considered “spotty” for the whole 25-mile trek.

It was here, wherever “here” was, that a Jeep Cherokee overturned, leaving me and three friends stranded. After assessing my own moderate injuries, I looked for the driver. Immediately, I could see her condition was critical.

 

St. Patrick Hospital's Life Fight helicopter sits atop a pad overlooking Missoula. Within five minutes of a call, the crew will already be taking off and heading to thescene.

Two of us sprinted up the rocky side of the mountain to call for help. Through the choppy cell signal, we gave the best directions we could to the dispatcher who said, “We will find you.” They did.

St. Patrick Hospital’s 24 elite Life Flight paramedics, nurses, and pilots often find themselves visiting spots like the one we were in, 25 miles by road from Ronan along the Flathead River.

Averaging more than 650 flights a year, each crew member accumulates at least 100 hours of flight time to and from emergency scenes, and that doesn’t count the hours they may spend with a patient on the ground. Multiply those statistics by at least nine years – the average length of experience – and you get a good picture of the lives of the current members of St. Pat’s Life Flight program.

Behind the Locked Door

Chief Flight Nurse Larry Peterman is a few more than nine years in. He’s got 22 and has seen dramatic changes in that time.

Things were bumpy after getting off the ground in 1981. “They crashed three times in the first few years,” he says. “Between 1981 and 1986, we learned a lot.” Peterman came along in ‘89.

He and his partner, flight paramedic Tony Pope, were part of a push in the last decade to increase safety of the crew and add significant upgrades in equipment. The result has become an extremely efficient air ambulance program that, according to Pope, has become an “iconic part of the state for about 30 years now.”

The program is now housed on the top level of St. Patrick Hospital. Only accessible to the members of the program, Pope uses a special key to get the elevator to the top. He mentions the need for extra security: “We can’t have people just wandering around up here.” At the top, he types in a code to get beyond a locked door.

With two bedrooms, offices, a living and dining room, and a storage area, the floor’s equipped for the crew to stay during 24-hour shifts. Just outside the living area is the pinnacle of the program, an American Eurocopter AS350 AStar. Overlooking Missoula, the helicopter sits atop a heated pad with a giant green shamrock logo.

While Peterman’s in the cafeteria, Pope sits down at the dining table with the lunch he brought, explaining the intricacies of the program. Within a few minutes, Peterman joins us. The two are relaxed while eating, but constantly paying attention to their radios in case they get a call.

 

Life Flight crew members Tony Pope and Larry Peterman eat lunch in the Life Flight dining area while on call. The Life Flight section of the hospital has a small dining and living room, as well as two bedrooms for crew members during their 24-hourshifts.

Since its inception, Life Flight developed into a program that does much more than answer 9-1-1 calls for a helicopter transport.

In addition to keeping its helicopter on standby 24/7, it also maintains and operates its own fixed-wing airplane and ground ambulance. Both the helicopter and fixed-wing are used on more than 300 calls each year. Its ambulance goes on about 50 cases.

“Only about 25 percent of our calls are 9-1-1 calls, the other 75 percent are ‘inter-facility’ calls,” Peterman says. In Montana, some of the smaller, rural hospitals can’t provide the care needed by a patient. In those sorts of cases, Life Flight will get a call for a transport to a larger facility. The airplane is used in all flights requiring an overall distance exceeding more than 150 miles without refueling.

A crew of no fewer than three typically travels with these three medical evacuation vehicles. Along with the pilot, there will usually be one flight paramedic and a flight nurse. Peterman, Pope, and pilot Larry Glenn make up one of St. Pat’s Life Flight teams and have been working together for more than eight years. “As a team, it’s like a family environment, like siblings,” says Pope. “We know each others’ personalities.”

To make sure everyone on the team has an equal voice in decisions that could risk their safety, they have a motto they live by: “Three to say go, one to say no.” If anyone feels unsafe, the crew will immediately turn back, or not even depart on a call. In that case, the patients will most likely have to be reached on foot.

Unlike many other air medical programs around the U.S., the medical helicopter teams in Missoula face a unique and increasingly dangerous challenge. “Flying in and out of mountains is very dynamic and changing,” says Pope. The crew gets a weather report, but once they get up there, conditions can shift dramatically.

There’s also down time. While eating lunch and discussing the program, Pope leaves to take care of other duties in the hospital. During the time the crew isn’t on call, there’s always something to do to make the program better, whether it’s setting up classes or training for the crews, organizing paperwork, or just helping with what’s needed around St. Pat’s.

‘I Didn’t Take This Job to Watch TV’

Back when Life Flight programs started and crew safety was not a top priority, emotion-based risks dominated a lot of missions, says Peterman. The St. Pat’s team now has a different system. “At this point, we keep the pilots totally uninformed of the case until they make their decision. For example,” he says, “if there is a kid involved, we will just tell the pilot where we need to go, so no emotion is used in the decision.” Once the pilot sees that there is a safe way to approach the situation, the crew fills him in.

 

A recently posted news story about a Medevac helicopter crashing, resulting in the death of three crewmembers and a patient, is put on a bulletin board in the dining area. Safety comes first when it comes to heading to a scene, and the posted story serves as a reminder to the crew of the potential hazards they mayface.

From the time the crews’ beepers go off, the pilot has OK’d the departure, and they’re airborne, about five minutes have gone by. During the entire 24-hour shift, they remain dressed in their medical flight suits, ready to grab their extra equipment without hesitating.

Both Pope and Peterman point out their “night-vision goggles” among the newer and more-important pieces of equipment they carry. Now, “we can pretty much see something like a glow stick 10 miles away,” Peterman says with a chuckle.

Once in the air, the primary mission many times is simply to locate people needing help. “We get calls to go rescue or search for people about 25 times a year,” Peterman points out.

He relishes that his job is rarely the same from shift to shift. “In this field, it could be a baby being born, a burn, trauma… the variety that makes it interesting.” When he comes to work, he wants something to happen, “I didn’t take this job to watch TV,” he says.

For a few hours recently, the team came and left as they patiently waited for a call. At one point during the discussion, a medical student walked in to secure a time when he could fly along with the team. The program is often asked to allow students in the air for field experience. People know that if you want to go to where the excitement is, then Life Flight is the place to be.

After nine years, Pope feels the same way as his longtime partner. “It’s an elite position to hold with a lot of responsibility,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of turnover. For most people this is the goal, once you reach it, you hang on to it.”

They Tried Everything They Could

I was able to witness that kind of professionalism after the Jeep rolled.

After having almost no contact with anyone for 45 or so minutes, a game warden happened to drive past our overturned vehicle. Using his radio, he was able to get into contact with emergency services to give our location, but it was still an estimate. It wasn’t long before we heard a helicopter in the distance. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the medevac chopper zoomed right over where we were standing.

“They will tell the ground guys where we are,” the warden said to us. Within minutes, the ground crews en route found us. There’s no telling how long it may have taken without the eyes from above pointing out our location.

With our rescue, the helicopters came from  Missoula’s Community Medical Center’s CareFlight program. According to Peterman, scene calls go back and forth between the two. If one helicopter is out or is being worked on, the other responds. Each call is alternated from one hospital to the other.

The Life Flight helicopter takes to the skies and heads to a nearby hangar for routinemaintenance.

The helicopter flew around a few more times to find a proper landing area. Within minutes, the flight crew and other emergency workers had the roof ripped off the vehicle in order to extract the driver.

When they got her out, the paramedics tried everything they could to stabilize her and get her to the nearest hospital. But nothing could be done. The injuries from the wreck and the amount of time without proper medical attention made it impossible to save her life. 

While getting bandaged up, I took in the amount of help that had come. Police, firemen, several ambulances with paramedics, and, of course, the helicopter with its medical crew — all strangers — rushed out on the same dangerous roads that put us there. It was strange to see so many unfamiliar people, all experts, using state-of-the-art vehicles and medical equipment, working together to help four random high-school kids.

All of the speed and efficiency the Life Flight crew talked about with me three and a half years later were personally familiar that day on the road. Regardless of the hospitals they work for, air ambulance teams all share the same work ethic and dedication, no matter who comes to save your life.

It wasn’t long until my other two friends and I were loaded into the back of ambulances and taken to St. Luke’s Hospital in Ronan for treatment.

“It’s amazing how many people say, ‘Hey, you flew my mom, dad, cousin…’ You realize you are a part of something bigger,” Pope explains. “It’s very cool to be a part of something that’s a big deal.”

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Russell Greenfield  is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Montana.