Thursday, January 03, 2013

Tragic news from north Iowa

The helicopter pad at Lucas County Health Center in Chariton.

Tragic news overnight from north Iowa, where Mercy Medical Center North Iowa's Air Med helicopter crashed north of Ventura killing all three aboard --- nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau, paramedic Russell Piehl and the so-far unidentified pilot.

According to my old friend Jodi Ball, Mercy spokesman, the helicopter was en route from Mason City to Emmetsburg to pick up a patient.

The state-of-the-art helicopter was owned by Dallas-based Med-Trans Corp., and had been in service in north Iowa since February 2011, according to news reports. Witnesses near the rural crash scene reported the sound of a helicopter, then silence, then a massive ground-level eplosion. Light freezing rain apparently was falling at the time.

I wish I could remember when Mercy introduced its air ambulance service, but that was many years ago and the service's safety record had been unblemished. I wonder how many lives have been saved by those helicopters and their crews.


It's odd to think back to the days when air ambulances were not available --- and even ground ambulance services with well-trained emergency personnel were in short supply.

I was among those who organized the rescue service in Thompson, a small Winnebago County town where I spent quite a few years. We were motivated to organize by the death of a friend's partner, who collapsed on the sidewalk on Main Street one day and died. Everyone felt helpless. Few were trained in CPR in those days; the nearest ambulance was about half an hour away.

So EMTA training classes were organized and the drive begun to acquire an emergency vehicle. Our first ambulance was a van conversion, which worked very well for the service's somewhat limited purpose --- to get those in need of emergency medical care to the closest emergency room as fast as possible with trained attendants on board. At that time there were hospitals in both Forest City and Buffalo Center, both about half an hour away.

For a few years that worked well, but then both those small-town hospitals closed and the nearest emergency room then was in Mason City, nearly 50 miles distant. So a professionally built and equipped ambulance was acquired and the level of service and the skills of the volunteers who provided it --- which continues --- increased.

Although trained to do it, I never felt adequate as an ambulance attendant. Providing medical care on any level is, I think, as much a calling as a set of skills --- some are called to do it and excell; others aren't, and don't; and I wasn't. But I made a good many trips in the back of those ambulances or in the driver's seat none the less.

I believe Mercy introduced its air amublance service after I'd moved away, or while I was commuting to and from Mason City, which precluded involvement in the local rescue service. Those helicopters provided, and continue to provide, a new level of security for those in need of advanced or emergency medical care, but far from the source, as often is the case in rural Iowa.


Here in Chariton, the Lucas County Health Center helicopter pad joins the northwest corner of our back yard at St. Andrew's Church. Ours was the first building, back in the 1950s, in what then were open fields in that part of town and the hospital was built and has expanded behind and to our north. The LCHS medical helicopter service is based in Des Moines and landings and takeoffs are relatively frequent.

When they happen and we're there, the practice is to stop whatever is going on and pray for the safety of those flying in and out and for the patients they are caring for, as the bishop did during his visit two Sundays ago.

There's a big cross, painted Episcopalian red, on the east wall of the church building, facing the pad. We like to think that it might be a comfort, too.

The cross on the back of St. Andrew's, facing the helicopter pad.

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