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November 5, 2004
Volume 42, No. 4


On a wing and a care: 25 years of airborne aid
Von Stange taking up UI residence
Filmmaker Nicholas Meyer focuses on iowa connection
Faculty and staff who love to play
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On a wing and a care: Twenty-five years of airborne aid

Helicopter landing on hospital roof
The helipad on the roof of Roy Carver Pavilion at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics can accommodate emergency helicopters from neighboring states. The hospital’s emergency helicopter was one of the first in the nation when it took off for the first time in 1979. Since then, the University’s two AirCare helicopters—one based in Iowa City and the other at Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo—have logged about three million miles and transported some 20,000 patients. Photos by Kirk Murray.

Onboard a medical emergency helicopter, there are no residents, no doctors, and no anesthesiologists. There are a couple of flight nurses and a pilot. Karla Dillard, a flight nurse at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for 11 years, says each member of the small crew needs strong skills, a certain fearless independence, and an abundance of grace under pressure.

“We face life-and-death emergencies all the time,” Dillard says. “But we trust each other and rely on each other, whatever comes our way.”

Dillard works for the University’s AirCare program, which celebrates 25 years of air ambulance flight this year. For many critically ill or injured people in a good part of the Midwest, the program is the difference between life and death. For Dillard and her colleagues—including four pilots, 13 other flight nurses, and two mechanics—it’s a job. But it’s a job they wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

“I have to admit I was attracted to the job at first because of the adrenalin rush of flying,” says Rick Ogren, a flight nurse with 13 years of experience and more than 1,600 flights. “But more than anything, it’s the corny nurse thing—I like helping people.”

Ogren and Dillard say they never know what a day will bring. They spend much of their time working in the emergency room, covering triage and assisting patients wherever they can, until flight calls come in over their radios. Some days, they get several calls; others, none. When a call comes in, they can be in the air in five minutes, Dillard says.

On the way to an accident scene, the crew keeps in touch by radio with physicians in the Emergency Treatment Center and intensive care units in University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Their black-and-white helicopter ambulance is packed with almost 300 pounds of neatly arranged supplies and get-up-and-go technology. The helicopter is equipped so flight nurses can stabilize patients en route to the hospital.

“We’re registered nurses whose training is beyond that of a critical care nurse, so we can intervene in almost any kind of emergency,” Ogren says.

Inside the helicopter, a pilot and two flight nurses work inside a space smaller than the interior of a Volkswagen Beetle. Next to the pilot’s seat, there’s a stretcher that looks barely big enough for one patient. Ogren says the tight space brings out the meaning of teamwork.

“Things can get intense at 3,000 to 4,000 feet in the air, and that’s when the closely knit world of the flight crew really starts to shrink,” he says. “But that’s also when we pull together.”

Ogren says the helicopter enables staff at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to save lives that otherwise might be lost. With the advantage of speed and no intersections or backed-up traffic, the helicopter greatly cuts out-of-hospital time for patients. Doctors say the first hour after a traumatic event is critical.

“Emergency medical specialists call it the Golden Hour,” Ogren says. “People who have been severely injured stand a much better chance of surviving if we can get to them and start giving them care within 60 minutes after their accident.”

Mike Hull, one of the hospital’s four pilots, says helicopter flying takes enormous concentration. Unlike an airplane, a helicopter cannot right itself—which makes his job much like trying to balance a wheelchair on bowling balls, as he remembers AirCare lead pilot Don Crowl once putting it.

“It’s a trade-off, because you’ve got the tremendous advantage of being able to get in and out of almost any situation, but you can’t take your hands off the controls for even a split second,” says Hull, who received most of his training in the Army.

Occasionally, Ogren chances upon old acquaintances and neighbors whose loved ones he has seen die in terrible accidents. Having grown up southeast of Iowa City in the small town of Lone Tree and then earning his undergraduate degree at The University of Iowa, he says it’s a sad thing that’s bound to happen. But he’s also had families thank him after a crisis for his help.

“We’re only human,” Ogren says. “It’s difficult to prepare ourselves for the sad or stressful situations we face. But when a call comes in, we just go out and do our job. I don’t feel like it’s extraordinary. It’s just what we do.”

by Gary Kuhlmann



Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright the University of Iowa 2003. All rights reserved.


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