Now that the intense demands of the COVID-19 pandemic have eased, San Juan Regional Medical Center’s AirCare unit has settled into a more regular routine of transporting patients to required treatment, but with a new set of wings.
A state-of-the-art airplane went into service at the beginning of 2022, enhancing the performance of the lifesaving crew.
“We currently average 65 to 70 flights on the new airplane each month, and 30 to 40 flights on the rotor wing (helicopter) each month … so we’re actually quite a busy base,” said AirCare manager Robbie Donald.
Donald, a registered nurse, is the new AirCare department manager. The Farmington native has been with the department for 13 years, after leaving the region for a few years.
“I’m near to my one-year mark in a couple of weeks,” he said.
Trauma centers in Albuquerque are the primary destination for the helicopter, but flights to Grand Junction also are common.
“Albuquerque has the No. 1 trauma treatment center, and it’s got a couple of advanced cardiac treatment options,” Donald said.
The helicopter is used as a “scene response in our local community and surrounding communities,” including the Navajo Reservation. Its range is about 150 miles, with reserve fuel for an extra 30 miles.
Flights to Denver, Colorado Springs, Phoenix and Salt Lake City are typical for the airplane.
“We hit a lot of the major cities in our region,” Donald said.
Flights are primarily “emergency responses for acute conditions – heart attacks, strokes, trauma,” he said. “We certainly do some transport of long-term medical problems that need a higher level of care.”
Donald recalled one memorable flight.
“We were transporting a traditional elderly Navajo man out of Chinle, and as we got close the Canyon de Chelly, he pointed out the homestead where he grew up and a lone hogan remained. As we flew over the canyon, he was mesmerized by the aerial view, as this was his first time flying, and I could see him tear up in happiness and joy. It was a meaningful flight for him as well as our crew.”
The new turboprop airplane, a Pilatus PC-12 NGX, is equipped with the most advanced medical equipment. It was purchased through a municipal bond offering in October 2020, said SJRMC Public Relations Director Laura Werbner, stating that $5.4 million was spent.”
Donald said it went into service at the beginning of 2022. San Juan Regional Medical Center contracts with Air Methods Corp. to provide pilots and mechanics.
The plane joins the unit helicopter, which saw heavy duty during the pandemic.
“During the early phases of the pandemic, we flew a lot of intubated, very, very sick people. We either brought them here to our hospital or down to Lovelace in Albuquerque,” Donald said.
Intubation is a process where a health care provider inserts a tube through a person's mouth or nose, then down into their trachea, or windpipe. The tube keeps the trachea open so that air can get through. The tube can connect to a machine that delivers air or oxygen, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Donald explained that when dealing with cardiac patients, a cardiologist determines whether the case is acute and the helicopter will pick up the patient for treatment at the Cardiac Cath Lab.
The helicopter and plane are equipped like an intensive care unit.
“Those are specialized equipment that are designed to bridge a patient from a severe heart attack to either a transplant or an open heart surgery or a coronary artery bypass surgery,” he said. “They have everything that an ICU would be capable of having. It’s a highly advanced ICU in a compact helicopter and airplane.”
The crew on every flight consists of a pilot, a nurse and a paramedic. With different skill sets, the nurse and paramedic are “cross-trained” for their specialized AirCare duties.
The airplane comfortably transports an extra passenger, while the helicopter is a “little more weight-limited,” he said. The helicopter’s patient load is 250 to 300 pounds, and the plane, about 400 pounds, which is crew-manageable. The new airplane can seat three additional people beside the crew of three. Pilots are provided through a contract with Air Methods.
“We actually do encourage family members, if possible, to go … for patient support purposes and for decision-making once they make it to the facility,” he said.
During a three 12-hour schedule, a typical 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift for the AirCare team begins with a debrief from the departing crew, followed by a thorough check of the aircraft, including all medical equipment and supplies. About 8:10 p.m., the crew does their daily brief to “address safety factors, pending missions … and educational issues and weather,” according to Donald.
Preparation is the key for their smooth, efficient daily operation. “We want to make sure that we’ve got everything in mind, that our crew has everything they need to be successful on mission,” Donald said.