By Matthew Taylor
Providing vital medical services for nearly 2,000 square miles of remote and rugged terrain, Aero Methow Rescue Service operates under unique conditions.
The nonprofit based in Twisp is almost an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital, and access depends on two highways that often struggle to remain open.
As a result, the organization has found itself responsible for providing a combination of advanced life support, emergency care and health education to a valley regularly faced with unpredictable and challenging conditions.
The organization was founded in the 1960s when former naval flight surgeon Dr. William Henry moved to the valley with his family. Upon arriving, he founded a private practice, primarily responding to house calls and transporting patients to the hospital in Brewster, in his family station wagon when necessary.
One night in 1967, Dr. Henry was called to the scene of an accident on Loup Loup Summit, where a young woman had been pinned by a car. He arrived with his medical bag, and called the local tow truck. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to free the woman and provide the necessary medical care with the resources they had available.
It was then that Dr. Henry realized that health care in the valley needed to be “more than a one-man show,” said Dr. Henry’s daughter and current director of Aero Methow, Cindy Button. The following year, with the help of fellow valley physician Dr. Baker along with a group of volunteers, Aero Methow was created.
In the early years, it functioned as a sort of “paramilitary rescue crew,” said Button, “We had a Saint Bernard, a snow cat and a helicopter on the way.”
When Dr. Henry retired in 1990, the organization was forced to adapt. After moving into a donated house in Twisp, they formed an Emergency Medical Services district, giving Aero Methow access to local tax dollars through a levy, and a contract which now provides around half of its funding.
The Carlton Complex Fire in 2014 prompted more adaptations. Various out-of-valley personnel came to Twisp to assist with the organization’s operations, while a nurse practitioner from Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster set up an urgent care clinic at the Aero Methow headquarters in Twisp.
As the only source of emergency care within hours, it became necessary for Aero Methow to operate at a higher level. The fires “forced us to be systematic and deliberate,” said Button, “It heightened our level of response.”
The fires made “heightened response” the new norm for Aero Methow. “We took that formula and applied it to our daily operations,” said Button. Communicating frequently with other health care providers and emergency management organizations, Aero Methow now serves as a “hub” for the valley’s health care community.
In addition to emergency medical services and advanced life support, Aero Methow provides health care education, emergency standby coverage for events, and assists with search and rescue.
The organization’s five ambulances (one based in Mazama, one in Winthrop, and three in Twisp), along with a fleet of seven aid vehicles, allow for rapid responses to medical emergencies throughout the valley. With backgrounds ranging from trained professional paramedics, to farmers, to mountain guides, to retired firefighters, the Aero Methow staff of 35 employees and volunteers is well equipped and prepared to respond to a variety of emergencies.
That readiness is reflected in this pledge on Aero Methow’s website: “If someone is in need of emergency medical care anywhere within this vast geographic landscape, Aero Methow will provide it.”