From reporter to mock patient
It’s not too often I’m asked to play a patient and ride on a helicopter.
Pretty much never, until last week.
Matt Cordes, operations supervisor of North Memorial Ambulance in Brainerd and flight paramedic of North Memorial Air Care, called to tell me North Memorial Air Care was conducting hands-on training for its new employees Friday for the first time. North Memorial came up with five scenarios, fueled and loaded its Agusta helicopter and invited Brainerd firefighters to help them train.
The scenarios included a patient having a stroke; one with a cardio condition/heart attack; a trauma patient where a man was in a motorcycle crash and was not wearing a helmet; a woman going into premature labor; and an asthma patient, who had flu symptoms and was unresponsive.
I played the stroke victim.
Eight North Memorial trainees — dressed in black jumpsuits with white stripes down the sides — reported to Air Care’s hangar located at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. They were given instructions on the training schedule by North Memorial staff.
I headed to the landing zone site at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds in south Brainerd. At the fairgrounds, about a half dozen Brainerd full-time and paid-on-call firefighters were already in gear and waiting for contact with the Air Care crew.
I watched two scenarios play out. Firefighters communicated with the air care crew by radio.
“We are six minutes out,” the pilot reported via radio.
“Are you familiar with the fairgrounds location?” a firefighter asked. The firefighter explained the scene and gave information about the patient.
Before too long, I could hear the helicopter coming. It landed and the paramedic and nurse left the helicopter and walked to the ground ambulance, where the patient was located. They entered the ambulance and Cordes, whose role was to give the trainees the patient information, filled them in on the patient. With help from the firefighters, they loaded the patient on the stretcher and into the helicopter. They worked on the patient until they were back at the airport.
Soon, it was my turn.
I hopped into the ambulance where Cordes was and waited for his direction. Up to this point, I’d been very excited to play patient, but most of all, I couldn’t wait to finally ride on one of North Memorial’s helicopters. They have Agusta helicopters, one of the fastest civilian helicopters on the market that flies at speeds of up to 200 mph.
I started to get butterflies as Cordes organized a few things. This gave me time to think, which was bad as I began over-analyzing. I started thinking, “What did I get myself into?” I remembered what one full-time Brainerd firefighter told me earlier that day about making sure I didn’t eat too many cookies before I went up to avoid air sickness. I knew he was teasing me to scare me a little, but as I sat there in the ambulance waiting to hear the helicopter, I was a little on edge.
Then I began thinking about what Don Johnson of North Memorial Air Care told me just a few minutes earlier: “It can be intense and cold when you’re lying on the stretcher under the helicopter,” he told me ... with its blades running. Gulp.
What initially was a small concern of mine — that the firefighters might drop me when they brought me to the helicopter — was now silly compared to what I would soon encounter.
Then my thoughts were interrupted.
“It’s time; lay down,” Cordes said as he pats the backboard a few times.
I laid down on the backboard and ask Cordes, “What did you talk me into?” I smiled at him a little as he knows I’ve wanted to ride in the helicopter for a long time.
He strapped me in at my chest, hips and feet. I couldn’t move my head as there was a head brace around it. I breathe, one breath at a time.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the flight paramedic and nurse get out of the helicopter and walk toward the ambulance. I took another breath. They opened the back door of the ambulance and I felt all the air being sucked away from me out of the ambulance.
Chad Macheel, the flight nurse, sat on one side of me. Lorina Weymier, the flight paramedic, sat on the other side. Melissa Mulcahy, who was training them for the scenario, sat by Macheel. Cordes sat above my head. He told them about my medical scenario, how I was standing in the kitchen when I had the worst headache of my life. He told them I fell to the floor and was unresponsive. They were informed of my current blood pressure and about my other vitals. I found myself unable to focus on what they were talking about.
While Cordes talked, Weymier held my hand to try to comfort me, “the patient.” It was soothing and made me take a bigger breath; I felt more relieved.
Then it was time. The doors of the ambulance opened and they slid the backboard onto the stretcher. The firefighters helped them get me settled. It really was not as bumpy of a transition as I thought it would be. Thankfully they did not drop me either. Actually, it seemed instantaneous going from the ambulance to the helicopter.
They put me in feet first so they could slide me into the helicopter. I was the first live/mock patient they had to get into the helicopter, so they were learning. I took the time to savor the moment. I couldn’t move my head, but I could see between the helicopter and its door. It was partly cloudy the entire afternoon, but at that time, the sun was shining strongly down on me as the blades seemed to rotate in slow motion. I’m sure the feeling is different for everyone, especially if they’re in a medical emergency. I was told it could be intense, but it was one of the most relaxing feelings ever. All the nerves I had earlier were gone.
I was in and locked into place in the helicopter. Macheel, Mulcahy and Weymier sat in their seats located behind me. They got buckled in and plugged my headset in so they could ask me how I was doing. I told them I was fine. The helicopter was ready for takeoff. Macheel and Weymier began asking questions about my condition and what the next step was. Mulcahy quizzed them on several things.
I received permission to take photos from my iPhone so I was busy catching them in action. Of course, I was still strapped in, but Macheel loosened the top strap for me so I could move around a little. I didn’t have the chance to admire the scenery, but that was OK. I was enjoying the opportunity I was given to play the patient.
I was able to hear the Air Care crew talk on the radio and someone asked how the patient was doing and Weymier said, “The patient is doing fine and is busy taking pictures.” Brainerd Dispatch newsroom staff told me later they heard the initial call on the police scanner about a woman who fell on the floor. They knew for sure it was me when they heard Weymier’s comment.
We were getting close to the airport and Mulcahy warned me the helicopter would vibrate a lot when it landed. It did, but again, it wasn’t too bad. They unloaded me and walked away from the helicopter to place me on the ground. The scenario was done. They unstrapped me and extended their hands to help me up. I paused as my hair was stuck between the backboard and the ground. Uh oh! Another emergency! It was an easy fix though as they lifted the board and I was free.
The three North Memorial staff members entered the Air Care hangar office and were debriefed on how the scenario went. The two did not know they were going to have a live person to train with until they saw me. Surprise!
Macheel said he was nervous so the training was helpful. He said the hardest skill will be how to function as a team. They never know who their partner will be on each shift, so they will all have to learn to work together.
Macheel and Weymier, who will both work at the Bemidji site, said one of the challenges during the scenario was working the door of the helicopter. There was something wrong with it. Their superiors tell them you never know what can go wrong with a call and you have to deal with it and move on.
Macheel said he has always enjoyed working with patients before they get to the hospitals.
“I’ve always liked that side,” he said.
Weymier, who lives in Grand Forks, N.D., said she has done a few ride-alongs, but that I was her first patient.
“It was very overwhelming,” she said. “I was very anxious.
“The training was about getting the basics down with the helicopter and learning the radios. There are a lot of radio (channels). The training was awesome and I am very proud to be a part of North Memorial Air Care.”
Weymier said the training helped them learn how to work in confined space and how to “conquer our own fears.”
Weymier has been a paramedic for 12 years. She said she wanted to try to be a flight paramedic because she wanted to advance her career.
“I want to keep moving forward,” she said.