The average STARS mission involves flying a patient from a scene to hospital or from one hospital to another.
But every so often our missions ask us to make history, with daring hover exits, search and rescue crews skydiving out of a Hercules and the government cutting a swath of trees to make way for our helicopter to land.
That’s exactly the kind of mission our air medical crews responded to one recent evening when they were called to help five hikers trekking the Mantario trail. After two days of hiking through a 60-km stretch of lakes and dense forest, one of the hikers was injured on a remote part of the trail. But as the STARS helicopter flew over the area, the pilots couldn’t spot a safe area to land. They quickly realized they couldn’t help the hikers on their own; this rescue would require the help of two other agencies with specific sets of skills.
First, STARS had to make sure they could get medical help to the hikers. To do that, search and rescue technicians (SAR Techs) from the 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron were called. That’s because they dive out of a Hercules fixed-wing airplane at 762 metres, parachuting to their destination. According to Grant Therrien, provincial director of operations at STARS, this request was unlike any we’ve made before.
“We do about five hover exits a year,” Therrien said. A hover exit is when the air medical crew repels from a helicopter as it floats above a landing zone. “This was the first time we actually used the search and rescue party out of Winnipeg. We’ve done training exercises with them, but hadn’t done a real rescue together.”
Second, the pilots had to find a place to land so they could transport the injured hiker to hospital. To do that, STARS needed the assistance of the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), which coordinated with the SAR Techs on the ground to find an appropriate patch of trees they could cut down to create a safe landing zone.
For the 435 Squadron, this jump was an especially risky one, according to Master Corporal Louis Labrecque, one of the SAR Techs who assisted on this call. The winds at 762 metres were nearly 112 km/h, that night and nearing 20 km/h on the ground, a much higher speed than they normally jump from at night, which meant complications for him and his crew.
“Normally, we dispatch a bundle with a spine board or whatever we need for an extraction,” Labrecque said. “But because of the winds, we were not able to do this so the only equipment we had was what we could carry on us. We could only bring a cervical collar and some materials for immobilization.”
The squadron did have one advantage, however: they were able to stay in contact with the hikers on the ground, and give them instructions on how to build a fire and care for their friend. When the SAR Techs parachuted in, they had to land in the nearby lake, which was lit up by the hikers’ fire. They made it to shore and looked after the patient and his friends until the next morning, when the MNR cleared a landing zone for the STARS crew who were then able to pick up the hikers.
“It doesn’t happen often that we do work with more than one organization at a time,” Labrecque said. “But this rescue is an example of how teamwork can result in a happy ending.”
The collaborative spirit of this successful mission exemplifies a belief that STARS has always held, that the best patient care isn’t provided by one, but by many allies, whose strengths and skills combine to arrive at the best outcome for the patient.
Labrecque feels grateful to be a part of a rescue that was so well organized and communicative. For him, it showed that all three groups shared the same goal of fighting for the patient’s life.