Aura Battis, a NW MedStar nurse, and David Leeman, a pilot, are part of the organization’s network of helicopter response teams. Photo courtesy of NW MedStar

Aura Battis, a NW MedStar nurse, and David Leeman, a pilot, are part of the organization’s network of helicopter response teams. Photo courtesy of NW MedStar

By Ann McCreary

A critically ill or injured person in the Methow Valley is a long way from the nearest hospital critical care unit, but a new Northwest MedStar base in Brewster offers fast transportation to advanced medical care.

NW MedStar is a regional critical care transport service that operates helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and ambulances from six bases in north central Washington. Last week the company — a 501(c)3 nonprofit — began providing helicopter service from its newest base located at Anderson Field Airport in Brewster.

The aircraft and ambulances operated by NW MedStar are essentially traveling emergency care units, able to respond to accident scenes and to transfer critically ill or injured patients to medical facilities within the region or as far away as Seattle.

NW MedStar has been serving the Methow Valley and surrounding areas for about 20 years from bases located in Moses Lake and Spokane. Establishing a base in Brewster cuts the response time to medical emergencies in the Methow Valley significantly, said Cindy Button, director of service for Aero Methow Rescue Service.

“We always planned on an hour from the time we called them to when they were going to land,” Button said. “Now they’re only 15 minutes of flight time away. Having them in Brewster we see as a huge benefit for everybody. They’re here much faster and can get the patient to the appropriate facility.”

The NW MedStar base in Brewster will serve Okanogan, Douglas and Chelan counties. The Brewster base includes a hangar for an Airbus Helicopter EC-134 and housing for a staff of 14 people, who live at the base in 24-hour shifts, said base coordinator Shawn Ottley.

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High level of care

During flights, patients are cared for by a registered respiratory therapist and a registered critical care nurse, both of whom are cross-trained as emergency medical technicians or paramedics, Ottley said.

“As soon as we arrive they [the patients] are getting the same level of care that they’re going to get at the facility they’re going to,” he said.

NW MedStar responds to accidents when they are called by emergency service providers like Aero Methow, fire or police. They have responded as well to 911 calls from organizations like Outward Bound, Ottley said.

Button said Aero Methow calls MedStar about a dozen times a year for medical and trauma patients. The most frequent calls last year resulted from wilderness injuries, she said.

For the Methow Valley, with its popularity as an outdoor recreation destination and comparative isolation, the ability to transport people quickly from the backcountry to a hospital can be essential, Ottley said.

“People like to come to our neck of the woods to recreate, and they get hurt,” Ottley said. Traveling at 140 miles per hour, the NW MedStar helicopter provides a 25-minute flight time from Winthrop to critical care facilities in Wenatchee, he said.

Button said Aero Methow has called NW MedStar to respond to car accidents on the North Cascades Highway, where an accident victim is 90 minutes to two hours away by ambulance to the nearest hospital.

“They are known to land [on the highway] at the top of Washington Pass and wait while Aero Methow does an extrication,” Button said.

A person having a heart attack or stroke needs to get to a hospital as quickly as possible for interventions such as cardiac catheterizations or clot-dissolving drugs to slow or stop the damage. “The sooner their problems are taken care of, the less time they spend in the hospital and the faster they recover,” Button said.

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Several landing sites

Pre-approved landing sites have been identified in and around the Methow Valley where the NW MedStar helicopter can rendezvous with Aero Methow to pick up a patient, Button said. They include the summit of Loup Loup Pass, Foster field in Mazama, Liberty Bell High School, the Methow Valley State Airport and Eight Mile Ranch up the West Chewuch Road.

More often than responding to calls on scene, however, NW MedStar transports patients from one medical facility to another that can provide a higher level of care, Ottley said.

“The majority of interfacility transports are medical patients,” Ottley said. These may include patients on ventilators, with severe infections, or cardiac patients who need continued intensive care during transportation and for whom “time is of the essence,” Ottley said.

“We will take patients where the sending physician wants the patient to go,” Ottley said.

NW MedStar also responds to high-risk obstetric cases such as premature labor and birth, “which tends to be more common in rural areas with less prenatal care, like the Okanogan Valley, Tonasket and Oroville,” said Ottley.

The flight crew nurses will sometimes “aid in the delivery of the child and then will transport the mom or baby or both where they need to go,” Ottley said. A baby needing a neonatal intensive care unit, for instance, will be transported to Spokane or Seattle, he said.

Use of air transport is guided by a detailed set of rules, policies and procedures that determine when it is appropriate, Button said.

“It’s expensive, and an added risk,” she said. “We have to make sure we have justified” that air transport is necessary in each case.

The cost of a flight is $10,000-$20,000, said Nichole Stewart, NW MedStar director of communications. Because most health insurance policies don’t cover the full amount, NW MedStar offers annual memberships ($59 annually for a family) that provide coverage for the portion not paid by primary insurance plans, she said.

NW MedStar was established 20 years ago in Spokane. In addition to Brewster and Spokane, NW MedStar has bases in Moses Lake, Richland, at the Pullman-Moscow airport and in Missoula, Mont.