Emergency flight nurses help Idaho fight COVID-19 from the air – Community News
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Emergency flight nurses help Idaho fight COVID-19 from the air

It’s been more than 50 days since Idaho introduced state-wide crisis standards for care. While hospitals have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of critical COVID-19 patients on the ground, a team of specialist nurses in the air have been caring for them as well.

At the base of the Life Flight Network in Boise, Jamie Hutt, a certified flight nurse, gives a tour of the inside of a helicopter.

“It’s a very cramped version of a hospital room,” she said.

A monitor beeps in the background. It displays a patient’s heart rate, records blood pressure and monitors CO2 levels. It’s the same device you might find in a hospital, but packaged in a small, portable unit.

The inside of an air ambulance with blue seats and a stretcher.

Gustavo Sagrero

The inside of a Life Flight air ambulance.

“You don’t have all the extra hands and support around, so it’s just you and your partner figuring out what’s best for a patient with the more limited supplies you have,” Hutt said. “And your supplies aren’t in a position where they’re readily available, so you have to think carefully about what you need.”

Life Flight Network, based in Oregon, operates medical helicopters and planes in the Northwest. The nurses and pilots who work there have felt the waves of the pandemic come and go over the rural, mountainous area. Their job is to get patients where they need to go as quickly and safely as possible.

When hospitals on the ground are overloaded, flight volumes go up. During Idaho’s latest spike in hospitalizations in September and October, crews took about 25% more flights each day.

And if multiple facilities in the region are full or can’t take more patients, the trips are longer to take patients further afield.

“California, Nevada, we’ve been to Colorado,” said Heather Borron, another certified flight nurse.

Typically, hospitals can keep most of their referrals in the state, said Mike Weimer, a regional vice president for Life Flight in the Treasure Valley.

“If we have to fly further away, it takes that plane out of rural communities for a longer period of time,” he said.

A Life Flight helicopter stationed at the base in Boise

Gustavo Sagrero

A Life Flight helicopter is stationed at the base in Boise.

In a rural state like Idaho, with few specialized care hospitals, medical air transportation plays an important role.

“People in rural communities who need critical care, and time-sensitive transportation to those few hospitals — the only way to achieve that is through air medical services,” Weimer said.

While the helicopters and planes are equipped for most emergencies, transporting COVID-19 patients over longer distances can be challenging.

“Often these patients breathe much faster. They need more oxygen percentages,” Borron said.

There is only a certain number of oxygen tanks that can be safely stored on the plane, according to FAA regulations. So it’s not uncommon for you to have to stop to top up along the way.

Borron has had this job for about five years now. To do it, she said, you need to be an expert in multiple fields of medicine, such as pediatrics and obstetrics.

“When you fly, it’s your pilot manning your ship, and your nurse and your paramedic in the back,” she said. “So you have to be really proficient in your skills and your abilities.”

The helicopter is like a flying ICU, Borron said. That means it can have more airborne resources than even some small, rural hospitals.

“They often don’t have the capabilities, because they’re a small facility, and they don’t have a Cath lab, or they don’t have ‘neuro’, or sometimes they don’t have an ICU.”

From the air, she’s seen the challenges rural states like Idaho face when the health care system is overwhelmed — through increased patient levels, staffing challenges and the overall fatigue of health workers.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio


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