Like all great plans, this one might have been scrawled on a cocktail napkin, or possibly hatched on the back of a receipt. There might have been a crude sketch of a helicopter.
Art Hironaka doesn’t remember all the details of the pitch Dr. Greg Powell and Dr. Rob Abernethy delivered in early 1985 around a lounge table in a Calgary hotel with a few Lions members. But he recalls one important memory: it was good. The best request for funding he’d heard in his time as treasurer of the Lions of Alberta Foundation.
Likewise, Dr. Powell doesn’t remember exactly what he told the Lions Club representatives that day, either. “We had a difficult time trying to speak over the noise of the band that was playing in the lounge,” he said. “We ended up having to finish up the meeting in the lobby so we could hear ourselves think.”
The formative weeks and months of STARS were similar to that initial meeting between Dr. Powell, Dr. Abernethy, John Panton, Art Hironaka and David Dalgetty, now dubbed the Five Founders of STARS.
“There was a lot of back-of-napkin sort of stuff in those days,” said Dr. Greg Powell.
Surprisingly, naming the air ambulance service was one of them.
Greg Curtis, one of the earliest STARS pilots, suggested the name “STARS” as an acronym. At a later meeting, a small team brainstormed appropriate words to fill in the acronym and came up with “Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society” and incorporated it under the Societies Act without much discussion.
To celebrate the new name, the group held an unveiling ceremony at the Calgary Airport, along with fire departments, police, airport authorities and other dignitaries. The day before the event, however, Hironaka received a call from the registry office in Edmonton, stating that there was a slight issue with STARS’ application – the name was too generic. Hironaka flew to Edmonton the morning of the unveiling to try to remedy the problem. He certainly didn’t want to change the name of the organization without consulting with the rest of the group, who were rather fond of STARS.
“What if we put ‘Southern Alberta’ in front of the name?” he asked.
That seemed to satisfy the registry office and it certainly satisfied Hironaka, who jumped on a plane with approved naming papers in hand, arriving just in time for the unveiling ceremony in Calgary.
Choosing the bright, recognizable red colour of the helicopter was not the result of a sophisticated decision making process, either.
Two of the original STARS pilots, Greg Curtis and Bob Young, agreed that an air ambulance helicopter was fit for a more striking colour than its original white. One wanted red, the other wanted blue. As money was extremely tight in those days, the choice became an easy one when a neighbouring aircraft refurbishment company brought over some red paint left over from a project, hoping STARS would have a use for it. The team got to work, sanding, taping and preparing the helicopter for paint. As luck would have it, STARS was dispatched to a mission just as preparations were complete. The crew quickly removed all the tape, flew the mission, returned to the base to re-tape the helicopter, and got to work again.
Alex Lang, who at that time owned the BK117 helicopter flown by STARS, almost fell over when he saw the bright red paint on his previously white helicopter, but it grew on him, thankfully. The red helicopter was and still is the most iconic symbol of STARS, immediately distinguishable in the skies above Western Canada.
It was clear that those who worked for STARS in the early days were doing it purely out of love for the job, as the secondary benefits weren’t exactly noteworthy. There was one washroom in the small building STARS occupied, which was shared by nurses, paramedics, engineers, and pilots. Desk space was at a premium.
“My chair was a bunk bed – and if I sat up too quickly, I’d hit my head. My desk was a coffee table someone had donated,” said Dr. Powell.
Sometimes in the winter, it was so cold that the receptionist would wear gloves. No one minded, though. The chance to fly on the helicopter and be a part of something so groundbreaking in Alberta’s medical history was more than enough. It wasn’t always anecdotal stories of misadventure with happy endings, however. Some days were very dark and it looked as though the fledgling service might have to call it quits.
“Were there days when I didn’t think this thing was going to work? Almost every day,” said Dr. Powell. “We were just trying to keep our heads above water for so long.”
At one particularly difficult point when funding was low and costs were mounting, the emergency room physician was sure that the dream would not survive. A 60-day notice to send to staff was drafted, just in case.
Thankfully, the notice was never sent.
A few things happened in the early years that really helped keep STARS flying. One moment really stands out for Hironaka. In an effort to raise awareness about the helicopter air ambulance service, the crew would fly to different communities across Alberta to meet with hospital staff, community groups and provide education on helicopter EMS. In one community, a physician commended Hironaka for the service he and his colleges had established, but noted that he could not think of a scenario in which he would actually need to utilize a helicopter air ambulance.
Hironaka recalls that not two months later, a young boy in the same community suffered a serious head injury while swimming at the local pool. Physicians at the hospital contacted the neurology department in Calgary. A neurosurgeon took the call and instructed the team to prep the boy for surgery – he’d be there in an hour.
The neurosurgeon then called STARS, which picked him up – along with two operating nurses – and flew him to the community to perform the operation. STARS then flew the boy back to Calgary, where he made a full recovery.
In the weeks that followed, the story was covered in the media, which helped bolster awareness and support for STARS.
The donations began flooding in.
The same neurosurgeon later came to one of STARS’ meetings as a guest. Hironaka asked, “What would have happened to that boy if STARS wasn’t available?” The surgeon replied plainly, “The best result we could have expected? The boy would have been brain dead.”
It’s stories like that that still resonate with the founders, even after 30 years and more than 30,000 missions.
“Every decision we made was never about money, or turf, or pride,” said Dr. Powell. “It was always in the best interest of the patient.”