Heather Stipcich was fighting for her life and the life of her unborn child.
It was the end of November and Heather had just hit the 25-week mark in her pregnancy. Up to this point, everything had gone smoothly and Heather and her fiancé Keven were making the remaining preparations for the arrival of their first child.
Thinking she was just facing a bout with kidney stones, Heather had been taking it easy at home where she passed the first few stones with just pain and discomfort. However, she soon became concerned when her pain didn’t subside. Thinking there may possibly be a third lingering stone, Heather headed to the local urgent care clinic in her hometown of Helena, MT.
At the clinic, doctors ran a series of blood tests and determined that Heather was in need of a much higher level of care. She was directed to St. Peter’s Hospital, a 123-bed facility in the heart of Helena.
“I didn’t know I was as sick as I was,” says Heather. “I had passed the first two kidney stones the previous Saturday, but this time, when my pain didn’t go away, I became concerned.”
After a night at St. Peter’s, Heather’s condition had not improved. By morning, her obstetrician informed her that she had contracted sepsis, a complication caused by an infection in her kidney. When Heather’s body began to fight the infection off, it triggered an inflammatory response that, if not treated promptly, could cause organ damage, possibly even failure.
To add to the situation, Heather was now in active labor – a full 15 weeks before her due date. Not wanting to risk her health and the health of her unborn child, Heather’s OB ordered that she be transported to Community Medical Center in Missoula where a sepsis specialist could treat her. However, with each passing minute, Heather’s condition was worsening. Time was of the essence and she was far too sick to take the nearly two-hour trip by ground. With the REACH base in Helena just 5 minutes away from the hospital, the choice was clear.
In a matter of minutes, the crew had Heather and her fiancé Keven loaded onto the airplane and pilot Steven Lamphier had them in the sky headed for Missoula. During the entire transport, Heather was in the expert and dedicated care of flight nurses Phillip Simon and Paula Russell and Flight Paramedic Don Wells.
“The crew was amazing, caring and by far the most understanding people I have ever met,” says Heather. “Don kept me calm and talked to me during the entire flight. It was very obvious he cared about me and my unborn child.”
Don has been a paramedic for almost 28 years, and before coming to REACH, he flew with several other air providers throughout Montana and California. His experience in the field has taught him a lot, but there is one thing that Don learned early in his career that to this day remains one of his top priorities during a transport – establish a strong connection with the patient.
Don says, “Whenever I transport a patient, I always try to find at least 10 things that I have in common with them. It is something I learned when I first started out as a paramedic. It allows me to relate better to my patients and it really adds a personal touch to the care I provide.”
During the flight, Don and the crew monitored Heather closely. Sepsis is a condition that can change rapidly depending on fluid levels, blood pressure, and other factors. It was important the crew keep Heather’s blood pressure stable and that they monitor her for signs of shock during the flight.
“They gave me a lot of fluids to help keep my blood pressure up. If they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have made it to the hospital,” says Heather. “By the time we landed my body was so weak, I couldn’t even sign my paperwork, my fiancé had to sign for me.”
In Missoula, Heather spent three days in the intensive care unit and an additional week in the hospital. The clinical staff at Community Medical Center were able to stop her labor and Heather was able to carry her baby full-term.
The flight crew were even able to check up on Heather a few months after her transport. Heather’s fiancé works in the heating and cooling business, and when he stopped by the Helena base to check on the heating system, a few familiar faces greeted him.
We are happy to report that Heather is now doing well and that she and Keven welcomed a healthy baby girl on March 25.