Celebrate Aero Methow’s 50th
A 50th anniversary celebration for Aero Methow Rescue Service will be held on Saturday (June 30) from noon-4 p.m. at the TwispWorks campus. The free event is supported in part by Confluence Health, Family Health Centers and TwispWorks. Meet original and current responders and tour Aero Methow vehicles. Your Space@ TwispWorks will host a timeline display of Aero Methow’s history including a revolving slide show. Representatives from Life Flight, Airlift NW, Okanogan County Search and Rescue and Okanogan County Dispatch will be on hand to offer information about their programs. There will be treats from Sunflower Catering and Molly’s Cakes. For information, visit www.twispworks.org/events.
Nonprofit rescue service grew from Doc Henry’s ‘fabulous ideas’ and passion
By Ashley Ahearn
Soothing harp music plays in the background, interrupted by the rasp of garbled voices over the emergency radio scanner in Cindy Button’s office. Button has been a paramedic for 40 years and talks with the quick, direct clip of someone who’s ready to rush out the door on her next emergency call.
These days, Button doesn’t get out on emergency responses as often as she used to. She’s the director of services for Twisp-based Aero Methow Rescue Service, which means she’s responsible for a staff of 15 full- and part-time responders and 25 volunteers who field roughly 700 emergency calls in the Methow Valley every year.
The nonprofit emergency medical service, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, responds to accidents big and small — from a fall in someone’s home to heart attacks, car accidents, overdoses and suicide attempts, and search-and-rescue missions in all terrains during all seasons. Aero Methow can respond to trail, climbing, whitewater and horseback emergencies. It’s demanding work, and in remote communities like Mazama, Winthrop and Twisp, Aero Methow is often the first line of medical support for those in need.
“Every rescue is unique and has an impact,” Button said, striking blue eyes peering over her reading glasses. She takes joy in a well-executed emergency response where dispatch works with law enforcement and volunteers rally to support staff.
“When everyone does their job, works as a team and a member of the system, that’s the coolest thing. Whether it’s non-emergency or resuscitating, bringing someone back to life,” Button said.
In her blood
Aero Methow was founded by Cindy Button’s father, Dr. William Henry, in 1968. Henry was a World War II doctor who came to the Methow as a country doctor with his wife, Ann, and young family. Doc Henry, as he was known, was devoted to his patients in the Methow Valley. Cindy remembers the long hours her father worked, his medical bag always at the ready day or night. Vacations were tricky.
“We would leave town in the cloak of darkness, 4 a.m., if we wanted to go on a family vacation,” Button recalled. “If you waited until the day started the phone calls would start to come in and he’d be on duty.”
Button remembers reading her father’s medical journals. At 12 years old she was helping her father set fractures and deliver babies. She says she’s never been the squeamish type. “I inherited a lot of built-in resilience from my father — being exposed to this kind of stuff from a young age. I didn’t do anything to develop it but sure, I probably need to see a therapist,” Button said. She says she unwinds by riding her quarter horse, Katie.
But joking aside, Button is devoted to supporting the mental health of her staff.
“If there’s anything that keeps me up at night it’s making sure my responders are safe,” she said. “We have a strong peer support team. The mental wellness of our team has been pretty well addressed and we’ve done emotional trauma support workshops. That’s the only thing that keeps me up at night — someone getting hurt, mentally or physically, in the course of duty.”
Long history of care
Donna Schultz was one of the first emergency responders for Aero Methow. She was a member of the ski patrol at the Loup Loup Ski Bowl and a medical assistant in Dr. Henry’s clinic in the late 1960s. She remembers talking with Dr. Henry and others over a cup of hot chocolate after skiing, and he would get excited about improving rescue operations in the valley.
“He was a happy whirlwind that came into our little sleepy town,” Schultz said. “He had all these fabulous ideas and he had the enthusiasm behind it and so you just wanted to get behind him. Wow, we can do it!”
Dr. Henry saw the need for an ambulance service in the valley. The nearest hospitals at the time were in Omak, Chelan or Wenatchee. Aero Methow started with a donated Chevy Suburban that was rigged up to hold a stretcher.
“Well, by the time the stretcher was in, it was very limited space,” Schultz recalled. “We didn’t have a lot of supplies, most often a doctor’s bag. It was so narrow and so hard, especially if you put an oxygen tank in. But we did it, and didn’t think about it. You thought of the patient. That was what mattered.”
Back then, Aero Methow was responding to logging and sawmill accidents right alongside skiing and car accidents — all without the use of cell phones or GPS. Schultz says the service has grown with the community over the years.
“What they have accomplished here, I still marvel, because I know what it was before Doc Henry came in,” she said. “It was a big need. We didn’t know it because we took care of ourselves, but once he got here, he helped so many people.”
Dr. Henry passed away in 1998.
A different model
There’s a saying in the emergency medical response world: “When you’ve seen one EMS, you’ve seen one.” In this part of the state there are two emergency medical services based at local hospitals, two ambulance services based out of fire departments and three privately-owned and operated emergency medical services.
Aero Methow follows a different model. It’s run as a private nonprofit whose funding comes from donations (two of the ambulances were paid for by a generous donor), medical service costs to patients and a levy of 50 cents for every $1,000 in assessed property value in the emergency services district, which includes the unincorporated valley and the towns of Twisp and Winthrop. There are just a handful of emergency medical services in the state with this funding model. Aero Methow provides services to anyone who needs them, whether they can pay or not.
Aero Methow also offers training classes in CPR, first aid and emergency response.
The next 50 years
From the days when Aero Methow was operated out of her father’s medical practice with one Chevy Suburban for an ambulance, the service has grown considerably. Button says that growth will continue, but not substantially. The nonprofit has a $1 million annual budget, depending in part on how much is received in donations.
Button sees a need for more-urgent but non-emergency response. She said Aero Methow gets a lot of calls for help from people who have fallen in their homes or who need medical assistance for accidents or cuts and scrapes that are not life-threatening. She’d like to see a hotline set up where Aero Methow could send out assistance without lots of flashing lights and sirens or a full response team.
Her focus is on getting smarter about meeting the specific needs of the community. On her desk are thick binders filled with information for federal grant applications that will help Aero Methow meet the challenges ahead.
Button’s applying for funding to help Aero Methow embrace telemedicine, better patient care coordination and health information exchange to eliminate some of the guesswork in diagnosing patients in an emergency situation. She’s also applying for funding to support the mental health needs of her staff, as they repeatedly respond to traumatic situations.
In the future, Button says, who knows? Maybe Aero Methow will be able to distribute EpiPens or anti-venom via drones to people in remote parts of the area who get into trouble.