KEARNEY — Ten years ago, Sara Slingsby, then an intensive care nurse at what now is CHI Health Good Samaritan, was itching for a new challenge.
When she spotted an ad for a flight nurse on Good Sam’s AirCare helicopter, she quickly responded. “It was something different,” she said.
Now, after 1,000 AirCare missions, she’s never looked back.
“I love it. No two days are the same,” she said. “I might get a newborn who is very sick, and a trauma patient later in the day. We’re more than a mode of transport. We start medications. We reduce blood pressure. We manage pain.”
Only one thing made her edgy on her first flight: She’d never flown in a helicopter. “The two senior flight nurses I flew with that day did a great job of preparing me for the flight and putting my mind at ease,” she said. “I’m not a great commercial air traveler now, to be honest. Here, there is no TSA check and no long lines. I just get in the chopper and take off.”
Chief flight nurse
Slingsby is one of 10 AirCare crew members who have flown at least 1,000 missions. She’s one of eight flight nurses on the Good Sam crew. For the past two years, she has been AirCare’s chief flight nurse.
She grew up in Custer County. After high school in Shickley, she envisioned a medical career. When her mother suggested nursing, she gave it a try. It stuck.
During each 80-hour pay period, she handles supervisory duties for eight hours. For the other 72 hours, she is a flight nurse.
During that time, she works two 12- hour shifts (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and is on call two nights from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. She also puts in two 24-hour shifts, during which she stays in a hospital-owned furnished apartment nearby. When her phone rings in the dead of night, as it often does, she is up and out in minutes. “I just put on my uniform and go,” she said.
Flight nurses gather at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. to hear the pilot review weather concerns, maintenance issues, fuel and oxygen levels in the chopper and more. Also attending are communication specialists, who dispatch for the crew. Joseph Debban, the clinical manager for AirCare and R.N., oversees the program.
Treating trauma patients
At an accident scene, “EMS squads roll up first and see the really tough stuff,” Slingsby said. “They set up a landing zone. By the time we get there, victims have often been removed from crashed vehicles. If there is more than one victim, we take the most critical patients first.”
The helicopter can take two patients at once only if their combined weight does not exceed 500 pounds. But weight is not the only critical factor, Slingsby said.
“It’s not fair to the patients if we take them both and split up our duties and don’t do the best job we could do,” Slingsby said. “We can bring one patient to the hospital, and then turn around and go right back and get the second one very quickly. We’d rather take our time and be sure we’re not putting patients in danger.”
Along with medical equipment, AirCare always carries a cooler of Type O negative blood, the universal blood type that can be given to anybody.
“Some patients are unsure about flying in the chopper. Some have never flown. Some are not comfortable with heights. This is a stress on top of being sick, so we aim to make them comfortable,” Slingsby said.
“We don’t see patients on their best days, but if I can do something to make a patient’s day a little better, or help him or her be not quite so scared, it’s a nice thing to be able to do. You might not get the outcome you wish for, but you work very hard to get the patient to the destination,” she said.
Founded in 1982 in conjunction with Rodgers Helicopter Service, AirCare is the longest operating original air ambulance service in Nebraska. AirCare covers the entire central and western parts of the state, as well as north-central Kansas. AirCare brings patients to Kearney. It also takes them to large medical facilities in Omaha, Denver, Kansas City and Wichita.
AirCare is owned and maintained by Rodgers. It is serviced at a hangar at Kearney Regional Airport. Its five pilots are Rodgers employees. Good Sam provides the medical care, medical staff and equipment. “We work together,” Slingsby said.
The chopper’s big advantage is speed. “Anytime a patient is having a heart attack, time is the issue, especially if a blood clot is causing the problem,” Slingsby said. “If someone in Ainsworth has a heart attack, driving down to Kearney can take a significant amount of time, but Ainsworth to Kearney in the chopper is 55 minutes.”
“One benefit of the helicopter is that there is a lot of open area between hospitals, and that cuts down the time from Point A to Point B. That saves lives,” Slingsby said.
With an average cruising speed of 170 miles per hour, AirCare can get to Broken Bow in 20 minutes, North Platte in 30 minutes, Ogallala in 55 minutes and Sioux City, S.D., in 80 minutes, roughly one-third the driving time. The Bell 429 is 20 to 50 miles faster than other regional air ambulances, according to Good Sam.
It can carry three crew members and two patients, but with its stringent weight limits, pilots must account for the weight of every person and piece of gear brought on board.
Sleeping bags and campfires
Flight crews are licensed in both nursing and EMS. They rigorously train and practice skills throughout the year.
“If there’s bad weather and we have to land in an unpopulated area and rough it for a night, we have to know how to get a fire started, things like that. After every flight, we restock the chopper with blankets and a pillow and towels for patients,” Slingsby said. Crews also carry a sleeping bag on board, just in case.
“Pilots are great at making decisions before we get in the air. We have certain parameters for ceiling, visibility and distances while traveling. If the weather is threatening, AirCare does not fly. If weather gets bad, we can say we’re not comfortable. It does no one any good if we crash and can’t help anyone,” she said.
Slingsby loves what she does. She’s learned a critical lesson, too. “Life is precious. Do not take your friends and family for granted,” she said.