New medical helicopter serving Yellowstone

Air Methods Corp.’s new Bell 407 GX helicopter started serving Yellowstone National Park on May 1. Already, the helicopter has made a difference, transporting patients with medical emergencies from the park to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.

Every year, millions of tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park.

Filled with geographic phenomena, the park lures visitors from all corners of the world. But, along with the beauty of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of North America comes a plethora of life-threatening situations.

Because of an increase in medical response in Yellowstone, Air Methods Corp. bought a new Bell 407 GX helicopter to serve the area.

The helicopter, which cost about $4 million, became operational May 1 and will run through the end of September to accommodate the tourist season. The helicopter will be staffed with a pilot, nurse and paramedic from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

A majority of patients are taken to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center because it is the closest cardiac and trauma center and has a preferred provider agreement. Air Methods also is able to transport patients to other hospitals if there is a need.

The helicopter is Air Methods’ second, the first of which is stationed at EIRMC. The two helicopters have a service range of 300 miles. An Air Methods airplane, based at the Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone, Mont., has a range of 1,600 miles. It has made flights to Washington, Arizona and California.

“From all indications, it’s a significant need,” said Lynette Sharp, regional clinical manager for Air Methods. “There continues to be a growing population that visits our first national park. We just found that the time patients were having to wait was too long.”

Visitors to Yellowstone have increased steadily since it opened in 1904. The park has hosted more than 3 million visitors for seven straight years.

The helicopter has been busy through its first few weeks of operation, Sharp said. Between the helicopter and the plane, Sharp said the company will average three to five flights a day.

Andrew Garrity, medical director for Air Idaho Rescue, which is owned and operated by Air Methods, said the biggest issues the medical response teams deal with are cardiac related. Often, he said, visitors aren’t aware of heart issues until they start exerting themselves in the high altitude of the park.

“Weaknesses in their hearts manifest when they get into higher elevation,” Garrity said.

Park medical responders also deal with trauma-related injuries, such as those received in car accidents or through encounters with wildlife.

“Most of the trauma that we see, the injuries were preventable,” said Doug Kinney, a flight nurse for Air Methods. “A lot of our injuries would be prevented if people would just buckle up. Every year we also see a fair number of calls from an encounter with (bison) and bear. People just get too close to the animals.”

Air Methods handles about 50 cardiac patients and 20 trauma patients each tourist season, Sharp said.

Garrity said the goal of the helicopter isn’t necessarily to get patients to EIRMC more quickly, but rather, to get trained physicians to those in need as fast as possible.

“It’s all about the patients and getting help to them,” he said. “If they are in Yellowstone, they may be in a place where they only have a park ranger available. It gets help to the patient and gets the patient where they need to be quickly.”

Kinney said he and the other flight nurses regularly perform surgery while flying to EIRMC. Procedures include placing advanced airways and chest tubes to help patients breathe, as well as splinting and setting broken bones. Kinney said the helicopter is equipped with many of the same medical instruments found in an emergency room.

Kinney said he enjoys working in Yellowstone, which provides challenges other nurses don’t face.

“It’s not uncommon for us to do a lot of back-country calls where we can’t get right to the patient,” he said. “So, we hike in or ride in on horseback.”

The new helicopter gives patients a better chance to survive, Kinney said.

With the helicopter, it’s only a 12-minute ride to even the farthest parts of the park. The trip to EIRMC takes about 40 minutes, where previously it could take an ambulance two hours in summer traffic.

“There is this thing called the ‘golden hour,’” Kinney said. “From the onset of the injury to where you should be in the ER is an hour. After that hour, your risk increases. Being closer allows us to close the gap on that golden hour.”