Multiple agencies work together to help fragile babies

It takes a Herculean effort to save the tiniest patients.

Missions involving premature babies and sick infants are not only logistically complicated, but caring for those born or living in remote areas also requires specialized teams that are often long distances away.

At STARS, we do everything we can to facilitate care for these delicate patients.

“The kids are counting on us to get this right,” said Cindy Seidl, lead clinical officer at STARS. “If we help even one child, then it’s the right thing to do.”

Several recent STARS missions highlight the successful partnerships between STARS and health-care systems on the Prairies.

In one case, a STARS transport physician was picked up at his home by ground ambulance, and driven to an airport to board a fixed-wing ambulance to meet a very sick mom-to-be with a premature baby on the way at a small rural hospital.

While Dr. Josh Bezanson was en route to the small-town hospital, a STARS helicopter picked up a specialized neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) team from Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital (UAH) and flew it to the pregnant mom.

“This was a sick baby and a super sick, high-risk mom,” said Dr. Bezanson. “She was in a rural hospital in imminent labour, and the situation required specialized care. Everyone was very anxious for mom and baby, so we had to get there as quickly as possible.”

To accommodate the NICU team, an isolette and all the medical equipment and supplies required  for the mission, our STARS crew had to first empty the helicopter.

“Everything from our stretcher to all the adult-sized equipment and supplies was offloaded to make room for the team and a 400-pound isolette,” said STARS flight nurse Krista Hartmann, who was also on the mission. “Everything has to come out.”

Dr. Bezanson said the initial plan was to fly mom and the NICU team from the rural hospital to UAH by plane so she could give birth there. That way, if she gave birth along the way, he and the NICU team would be there to assist both mom and baby.

But the baby had other plans and was delivered not long after all the medical crews, including Dr. Bezanson, arrived at the rural hospital.

The baby was just 28 weeks old and extremely fragile.

Ten medical professionals assisted with the labour and delivery, said Dr. Bezanson. “This could have been devastating. Instead, with the rural physician leading the way and a neonatologist on the line, this small rural hospital was essentially a major centre.”

Once the newborn and mom were stable, they were transported to the airport by ground ambulance and then flown by critical-care fixed wing, staffed by Alberta Central Air Ambulance, to UAH.

“It worked out well for mom, and she never had to be separated from her baby, which is the case sometimes,” said Dr. Bezanson. “All of the critical care resources she needed that day were available.”

A few weeks before, a similar mission took place in Saskatchewan, only with a slightly older patient.

A 42-day-old infant in a rural community near Saskatoon needed a pediatric intensive-care transport team. Upon receiving the request, our helicopter from the Saskatoon base was on another mission and fixed-wing Saskatchewan Air Ambulance was similarly tasked with another call. Due to a very high volume within the city, ground EMS was also looking at a delayed response.

The critically ill infant was running out of time.

Seidl said there was no choice but to find a way to help, so a decision was made to send a STARS helicopter from Regina to Saskatoon, to pick up the pediatric transport team and take them to the child.

As in the case with the NICU patient, the helicopter was reconfigured to accommodate the PICU team.

The pediatric transport team was picked up from Royal University Hospital and flown to the rural community to take care of the critically ill child.

“This is a great example of how multiple teams can come together with a shared focus on patient first and ensure the child received the care needed in the quickest possible manner,” said Seidl.

Both missions were coordinated by the STARS Emergency Link Centre in Calgary. The emergency communications specialists facilitate every STARS mission by connecting callers, conferencing in physicians, tracking the helicopter’s location and working with first responders to make sure there are secure landing zones for STARS to land.

It’s that coordination, coupled with the expertise of the medical teams, that often makes the care feel seamless for patients and their families, said Dr. Bezanson.

“We can train for these scenarios, but in reality, these are no-notice events, and everyone has to be ready to respond with speed and skill.”