Airmédic: Healing in Flight – Part I


By Jean-Marc Beausoleil

Emilie Harrison is an air nurse: “We’re on call. A little like a fire station.  24 hours out of 24. We wait until someone needs an air evacuation, and we get there by plane or by helicopter.”

Emilie works for Airmédic, the biggest business of its kind in Quebec. They operate craft dedicated exclusively to medical air transport.

With installations at the Saint-Hubert Airport, at Saint-Honoré (Saguenay), at La Romaine (on the north shore of the St. Lawrence) and a team in Kuujjuaq, this enterprise sells itself on being able to provide efficient, safe medical care adapted to any situation in Quebec.

Bought by the Groupe Huot in 2012, Airmédic, which started with only two helicopters, has benefitted from over $90 million of capital investment in the past decade. On average they make 1,200 flights per year, which translates into 2,000 people transported.

All this is thanks to four Airbus EC145e helicopters that can fly four passengers and two stretchers at a speed of 230 km/h; as well as six Pilatus PC12 airplanes that can carry five passengers plus two pilots trained to land on short runways or gravel; and one Pilatus PC-24 with a cruising speed of 800 km/h that can land on unprepared terrain.

In each craft there are two pilots and two nurses, or sometimes a nurse and a paramedic or a respiratory therapist. That’s what you call a flying ambulance.

In all, Airmédic employs 26 airplane pilots, 9 helicopter pilots, 45 nurses, 15 respiratory therapists, 20 paramedics and 20 doctors on contract.

Premature Flight

Says Emilie Harrison: “I was once faced with the case of a woman who was about to give birth. We had to deliver the baby before we took off, or else it would have happened on the plane. A doctor and a midwife were with us. We also had a respiratory therapist and a paramedic. We made a good team.

“When we arrived, we took control of the situation. The midwife went to evaluate the patient. She was going to give birth immediately. We divided up the tasks. The doctor and the respiratory therapist said that when she gives birth we’ll take care of the baby, if it needs any care. The midwife and I took care of the mother. Because when a baby is born there could be two patients. The mother could start to bleed.

“We didn’t know what shape the baby would be in, so we made a plan. In the end, everything went well. The midwife and I helped with the birth. But the whole team was ready.”

Command Post 

Even when it comes to geography there is a distinct society here in Quebec. Airmédic covers a larger territory than similar enterprises in other parts of Canada. That forces some very strategic decisions, such as in choosing medicines or in refuelling.

At the Saint-Hubert call centre, two to three responders can see live on giant screens where the company’s flight craft are at any given time. They can also see which employees are in the field, at rest, or awaiting a mission.

In the hangar and the medical supply warehouse, employees like Maxim Jones go over checklists for the airplanes. The equipment is impressive: monitor, ventilator, volumetric pump for IV medications, as well as covers for transporting patients across the tarmac in winter.

And let’s not forget vomit bags, anti-fire goggles, life jackets… Or the incubator, like the one used to save a premature baby a few days before I visited their offices in Saint-Hubert. Once off the ground you can’t fly back. Everything has to have been provided for.

As a clinical nurse, Emilie works in both the planes and the helicopters. She explains the specifics of her practice: “You have to learn to give people treatment while in the air. There are effects on the body you can’t ignore, stress factors. Given that the humidity is low, patients can dehydrate more rapidly. And the caregivers can, too. The vibration and the noise are also sources of stress. The cold. The low air pressure. The fact that there’s less light…

“For example, think of a patient with a tube down their throat.  That tube has a balloon, an expandable bladder, on it, filled with air. When we’re in the air, because air expands at altitude, we put some water in so the tube doesn’t come out during flight. It’s an important detail to keep in mind. Details like that can make a huge difference.”

Her shoulders bear heavy responsibilities: “Sometimes we’re in flight for an hour and a half before getting to hospital. The distances are vast.”

French version in Reflet de Société

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