Air ambulance finds a home at Eagle County airport
GYPSUM, Colorado – Kellye Simpson is ready to roll at any time during her 48-hour shifts. And there’s nothing else she’d rather do.
Simpson is a flight nurse for Tri State Care’s helicopter stationed at the Eagle County Regional Airport. When an emergency call comes, she, a pilot and a paramedic can be in the air in minutes. The crew will sometimes pick up a patient from hospitals in Vail, Aspen, Glenwood Springs or Steamboat Springs and fly to Denver for more advanced care. Sometimes the crew will pick up a badly injured patient right from an accident scene or backcountry rescue.
For those of us used to taking roads to those towns, the speed of as-the-crow-flies transport is breathtaking. Steamboat is the most-distant hospital from the Tri State chopper’s home base, and it’s only about 20 minutes away. Aspen and Vail are about the same flight time from the county airport – less than 15 minutes.
On one occasion, that speed put the Tri State crew first on the scene of a backcountry rescue, when the ground crews were bogged down in mud.
Once on the job, the chopper and its crew can provide a lot of help.
“It’s like a small intensive care unit,” Simpson said. There are defibrilators, ventilators, intubators and just about every common emergency-room drug.
“Small” is the word to consider here – imagine a mid-size, or maybe a compact car stuffed with medical equipment and room for a pilot, two crew members and a litter and you get some idea of the space available.
Once in flight, everyone has to stay strapped in, but Simpson said she and whatever paramedic she’s flying with can get quite a bit of work done if needed. But anything that requires the seat harnesses to come off means a landing.
“If we need to do CPR on a patient, we have to set down,” Simpson said.
But before the hard work of getting a patient safely to a hospital comes the hard work of getting to the scene.
Pilot Scott Ritter – one of four pilots who share duty at the Tri State station in Eagle – has to make sure the chopper is ready to fly before takeoff. That includes a walk-around, and checking weather and wind conditions, both at the airport and its destination.
Ritter makes the ultimate decision whether to fly or not – that’s why he doesn’t know what condition the patient is in before or during the flight, leaving those details to the medical staff.
“You can’t let the patient distract you,” Ritter said. “We (pilots) really have to separate ourselves from the patient.”
Once over the landing zone, Ritter and his crew do a lot of talking, to people on the ground, and each other.
“Each landing zone is different,” Ritter said. “You’ve got the circumstances, the altitude, heat, weight, wind … “
“We have to work as a team, especially at night,” he added.
With the pilot in the right-front seat, the paramedic in the left-rear seat becomes the pilot’s eyes out that side of the chopper. A “night sun” spotlight can illuminate a landing zone from a broad bath of light to a focused beam.
Even landings in routine spots like the helipad near Vail Town Hall can be different every time, Ritter said.
But Ritter, Simpson and the other crew members are here because they want to be. And because a group of local doctors wanted them, too.
“It took three years,” Dr. Reg Francoise said. “It’s been quite the journey,”
Francoise and other doctors persuaded the Vail Valley Medical Center board to pay for a study to determine the need for a locally based medical helicopter. With study in hand, the locals went to Tri State to pitch Eagle County as a good place for one of the company’s crews. The new station opened in late February, joining the company’s other Colorado locations in Montrose and Durango.
The biggest thing about Tri State is its always-ready status.
Flight for Life, which has flown into the valley for years, was first based in Denver, then Frisco. But, Francoise said, that company didn’t fly to Eagle County 24/7 until Tri State came to the valley.
Bringing Tri State to Eagle County wasn’t easy.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Francoise said. “But it’s functioning very well now.”
And the service has had stretches of some heavy activity.
“In mid-summer, they averaged about a flight a day,” Francoise said.
And Simpson said she’s had three-flight days over the last couple of months, although relief crews have to take over if the main crew works a certain number of hours in its 48-hour shift.
Simpson, who’s been an emergency room nurse, and a flight nurse for the Air Force National Guard, commutes to Gypsum from her home in Erie, north of Denver. But, she said, she’s doing it because of the work.
“Everything you do is done in a very condensed version,” Simpson said. “I love it – this is the most fun I’ve ever had on a job.”