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.
Tom Clair is a pilot for Airmédic. He talks about their capacity for rapid and safe adaptation. “We’re alone up there at night.”
He recalls: “We’re never put under pressure because of the medical case.” Tom insists on the importance of following established protocols and not being a cowboy, despite the pressing desire to come to a patient’s aid: “It’s not easy to fly through a snowstorm.”
As a clinical nurse specializing in first-line care, Gabrielle Prairie works on the ground. She has to answer questions from nurses in the field.
One recent example: While still in flight, two nurses on board were confronted with the possibility that there might be two patients for them to take care of, when only one was planned for. The second patient was a baby with digestive problems. Gabrielle explains: “Did we have the necessary resources on board? What are the possible complications? I helped my colleagues make decisions while they were already in action.”
In this case, the baby could be transported. “Happily, pediatrics is in my comfort zone,” Gabrielle sighs.
Along the same lines, before joining Airmédic, Crystelle Bourassa lived in Kuujjuaq for eight months and in Salluit for 18 months, working as a nurse. She has good memories of her time in the far north: “You have the impression of being elsewhere. The beauty is stunning. The sun never sets; it just takes a little nap behind the mountains. Riding along on the tundra is nice.”
She lived through some very tough situations, such as when she worked for 24 hours straight taking care of trauma victims, including an ATV accident and a bullet wound. In short, she also had the experience needed to help her team.
Emilie travels in both planes and helicopters. Those helicopter trips often go into the woods, to aid people who’ve been injured in four-wheel vehicle accidents or who’ve had a stroke in their chalet.
In these cases, for example for a motocross accident, directions are sometimes imprecise. Emilie explains: “The pilots have infra-rouge goggles that only the army normally gets. We’re just about the only civilians that use them. It’s a piece of technology controlled like a gun, because it offers a big advantage in darkness.”
In 2016, Airmédic became the first medical air transport company in Canada to obtain Transport Canada certification to go on night flights, with the help of night vision goggles.
Emilie continues: “Sometimes we show up and the patient is in the back of a pick-up truck surrounded by branches other people have put there to help immobilize them. We’ll see some improvised tourniquets. We have to stabilize the patient as much as possible to move them, so that their condition doesn’t deteriorate during the flight. At the same time, the longer you wait, the longer it will be before you get to a hospital. We have to evaluate the situation and act rapidly.”
“In certain cases,” she goes on to say, “the pilots have to call someone who is at the airport we’re going to. The person goes out, looks around, and comes back with a weather report, including the cloud ceiling height and wind speed. It’s very approximate. We don’t always know, but we go in anyway.
“Sometimes we can’t land because of weather conditions. Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps,” this nurse admits. “I hate that! Because we never know quite what the weather is in the far north. And we know a patient is waiting for us. We’re there. We’re over them, but because the clouds are too low or the wind gusts are too strong, it’s too dangerous. It’s the worst situation.”
Despite it all, Emilie smiles. “There are still a lot of trees in the north. Sometimes the pilots will drop me on a pier so I can get to a patient. But the helicopter will land farther away. Transporting a patient can become a challenge. Because to get on the helicopter, it has to be stopped and the rotors have to be turned off.”
In the most difficult of cases: “We have a training exercise where we jump on the bottom of a helicopter while it’s in operation. We also get on board while it’s in operation. That’s the first bit of training we do when we start out. It’s fun.”
Fun? Wow. Respect.