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Saving lives in the air: Sanford AirMed in Dickinson helps save lives with the use of a plane

When someone hears the words "life-flighted," a horrific car accident and a helicopter may come to mind, but the Sanford Dickinson AirMed team does much more than that and uses a fixed-winged aircraft instead of a helicopter.

The Sanford AirMed flight team takes an average of 30 calls a month, however that number can vary from month to month and depending on the season. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)
The Sanford AirMed flight team takes an average of 30 calls a month, however that number can vary from month to month and depending on the season. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)

When someone hears the words "life-flighted," a horrific car accident and a helicopter may come to mind, but the Sanford Dickinson AirMed team does much more than that and uses a fixed-winged aircraft instead of a helicopter.

The plane is likened to a "mini ICU," said Lori Hintz, who recently became a board-certified flight-registered nurse through the Board Certification of Emergency Nursing. The plane carries blood, medications, a ventilator and much more.

"It's fun, I enjoy it," she said. "It is different because in a hospital you have the doctors there to tell you the orders. We have a protocol book that we follow. ... We do have the ability to call medical control if we need to, but it's just us. There's not other help."

Kelly McAvoy, one of the pilots for the team, said the AirMed team differs from a typical helicopter team because a fixed-wing aircraft can go longer distances and can respond when weather conditions are not the best. McAvoy previously flew in the U.S. Navy. When she and her family moved to Dickinson, she worked at the airport until the AirMed position opened up.

"I've really enjoyed it," she said. "I really enjoy the people that I work with. It's very satisfying, the job. I feel like we actually help people. You go home at the end of the day and it might have been a long day, but you'd do it all over again."

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The flight team answers an average of 30 calls a month, but that number can vary from month to month depending on the season. When they receive a call for someone who needs the flight team, they only receive the weight and where they are going. From there, the two pilots will decide whether they believe the weather is good enough to fly. The other team members also get a say about whether they believe a flight should go. If one of them does not want to go, for whatever the reason, they will not go. The team only receives the sparse details at first, so the details do not influence their decision.

If they decide to take a call, they will fly to wherever the call came from and coordinate with the hospital or ambulance service in that town. For example, if the team takes a call in Bowman, they would fly to Bowman and meet the ambulance team who would assist them in getting the patient at the hospital and then back to the plane. They then fly to whatever hospital the person needs, whether in Bismarck, Fargo, Sioux Falls, S.D., or other locations. The team has traveled as far as Seattle, Denver and even Canada.

"One of the requirements is that (the calling hospitals) don't have the ability of taking care of them," Hintz said. "You always have to transfer to a higher level of care and there has to be a reason that they can't go by ground."

Wylie Walno, another pilot, said everyone on the team is highly trained. For example, he spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force. Other pilots on the team and within Sanford have thousands of flight hours logged to ensure they have the best people doing the job.

"They hire the best people they can and they keep us trained and they train us pretty well," he said. "... No matter what you do you always get someone with years and years of experience. This is not a job that you're hired right out of school. Everybody has to have a certain number of years of experience and hours of training."

Ron Lockwood, one of the flight paramedics, said the number of hours of training is important because they have to know everything from dealing with an infant all the way up to an elderly 84-year-old.

"We have to be able to make those decisions between the two of us if something goes wrong," Hintz said. "You have to be able to say, 'OK, now what do we do?' and you only get that from experience."

Lockwood became involved with a flight team after he moved from a small, rural community in Pennsylvania. When he moved to the eastern side of the state, he began his career as a ground paramedic before joining a flight crew.

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Hintz said it is sometimes disappointing that they do not always get a chance to find out how a patient is doing after they take them to wherever they need to go.

"We don't always have the opportunity (to find out how someone is doing)," she said. "At times, it would be nice to have more follow-up with them just to see how they did."

A handful of times, Lockwood said a person has showed up at their doors to tell them how they are doing and to thank them for helping to save their life.

"You pick someone up from an accident scene and when you get them, they're a mess, they're blood-covered and whatever," he said. "But, a month or two later they come knocking on your door and saying 'Hey, I'm so and so.' In the moment you don't recognize them, but then you go 'Oh my gosh, yeah. I'm the one that had you.' They come in and talk to you and it makes the whole thing worth it."

The Sanford AirMed flight team takes an average of 30 calls a month, however that number can vary from month to month and depending on the season. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)
The Sanford AirMed flight team takes an average of 30 calls a month, however that number can vary from month to month and depending on the season. (Sydney Mook / The Dickinson Press)

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