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Up close & personal: ease, efficiency of fixed-wing ambulance | Guest Column
I am grateful for both fixed wing and helicopter ambulance service on our island.
As a 41-year-resident of San Juan Island, I have seen some dramatic positive changes in air evacuation. Ten days ago I wrote the following thank you letter to the EMS service and Island Air. Recent concerns over the fixed-wing service cause me to make my letter public.
To: Jim Cole, San Juan Island EMS, Jackie Hamilton, Island Air
I found myself in a “time capsule” two weeks ago. I stood on the tarmac of the Bellingham Airport at one o’clock in the morning watching my husband being transferred from Island Air’s fixed-wing ambulance plane to the waiting ambulance ready for the journey to the cardiac care unit of St. Joe’s hospital. We had been transported from our boat at Shipyard Cove to the new Peace Island Hospital by the EMS personnel.
After a determination at the local hospital that my husband’s heart was in need of attention by specialists, Jackie’s team was called into duty to join the EMS for the evacuation to Bellingham. We left the new local hospital with its wonderful team of skill and support to be transported to the Friday Harbor Airport. It is here where my memory of 40-plus years on the island came full circle.
My late husband, Les Labar, the founder of Aeronautical Services, had been a pioneer in fixed wing medical evacuation to St. Luke’s Hospital in Bellingham in the late 1970s. I remember our original Cessna 207; the day UPS freight hauler, quickly converted to accommodate a stretcher and two EMS personnel.
If I recall correctly that conversion involved removing a piece of plywood that formed the floor of the freight area and then allowing the stretcher to be tied to the floor rings. I think there was one rear seat for one EMS person and the other personnel sat up front with Les.
The local ambulance met the plane at our freight hangar; no extra lights, or special equipment, just Les, the plane and a space for the stretcher. No one was tracking the flight, no communication network, no cell phones, no radio contact with the hospital, just the promise to meet the flight by the original contact from St. Luke’s.
There was limited ability for the EMS to provide medical support for the patient in route and no room for a family member to accompany the patient. Compare that 35-year-old scenario to what I experienced in the early morning of Aug. 18, 2013.
We were greeted by a gleaming Cessna 207 fully dedicated to medical evacuation. It was housed in a spotless hangar with state of the art equipment to smoothly move my husband into an aircraft equipped in a manner my late husband could have only dreamed.
I had met our pilot, Craig Bailey, just the week before at the 40th anniversary for Aeronautical Services. He was the consummate professional. He orchestrated the flight with skill, competence and ease.
When we arrived at the parking spot in Bellingham, the waiting ambulance moved into position and I watched a seamless ballet as the pilot, two EMS professionals and the two ambulance attendants never wasted one step to smoothly transfer my husband out of the plane and into the ambulance. It was a demonstration not only of excellence but world-class care. How blessed are we?
I have been privileged to have witnessed 35 years of progress in fixed-wing air evacuation from San Juan Island and I never imagined this kind of state of the art service.
Jim, you have brought the EMS service on this island to an enviable level of excellence and Jackie, your portion of the total package is truly remarkable. The two of you and your teams deserve all of the accolades we can give. Thank you from one who has seen a glimpse of both ends of this time line. With sincere respect,
Marilyn (Labar) Nasman/San Juan Island