On most days, crews at the Winnipeg base are busy responding to critical patients, preparing for flights and training. Between all the work, however, there is time for cooking, laughter and good conversations. The team’s mood is light, and everyone seems optimistic.
“The base is flying about twice daily, and helping patients is good for morale,” said Betty Lou Rock, STARS vice president of operations in Manitoba, nurse and former director of critical care for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA).
“Grassroots fundraising is happening, businesses are stepping up to help, and events are successful.”
In addition, a new helipad opening at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg will mean quicker access to specialized care.
While the operation is on solid footing, there were challenges after STARS began flying in the province in early 2011. Initially, the team didn’t have its own facility, fundraising was difficult, and STARS wasn’t called upon to help at the same rate as at other bases.
“It was a difficult time,” said Rock. “Thankfully, with support from the public, WRHA, medical community, and emergency services, STARS is now well on its way to being integrated within the province’s health system.”
During the 2015/2016 fiscal year, Winnipeg flew 568 emergency missions. Just over four years ago, STARS wasn’t yet flying in Manitoba. The advanced care paramedics were working with ground EMS, and nurses and doctors were providing critical care at major hospitals. Some pilots were still serving as officers
with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“Everything was new. We were beginning to land on roads and at hospitals with experienced critical care teams,” said Edmonton STARS pilot Jon Gogan, who was Winnipeg’s base director until 2014.
Gogan was involved early on, helping plan STARS’ first limited term visit to Manitoba during emergency flooding in 2009. STARS would return in 2011 for another short-term contract, which then led to a 10-year service agreement.
He has fond memories from his time in Manitoba. “I remember landing near the town of Boissevain near a bee farm – people were so happy we were helping their community – they brought us honey, lots of honey. It lasted us a year.”
Gogan credits numerous key individuals for helping establish STARS in Manitoba. “There were so many people behind the scenes who believed,” he said.
One of the early advocates was Dale Riddell, a long time STARS volunteer board member, and vice president of the Red River Co-op board of directors.
Riddell first volunteered with STARS from 1992 to 2000 while living in Alberta. Just over a decade later he would return to STARS’ volunteer board of directors, this time from his new home in Manitoba.
“In 2011 we experienced a massive flood, and the government asked STARS to come on a temporary basis, and be on call because roads were washed out, and there were a number of accidents.”
Riddell’s experience as an official in the Canadian agricultural sector helped lay the foundation for STARS in Manitoba. When key stakeholders became involved positive momentum carried the program forward.
Then, media provided wide-scale coverage of a near-drowning event involving a young boy – Samuel Gross – who was sucked into a culvert. STARS was widely credited with helping save his life.
Riddell has great confidence in the STARS crews, management and governance model. However, he is quick to point out that it takes a team to save a life.
“Overall it’s important to understand that STARS is only one link in the chain of medical care in Manitoba,” said Riddell. “But it is an important link, providing rapid access to critical care from the concentration of specialized services found in urban areas.”