“One of the honors of working at a rural base is that we are able to provide a service that is critically important to the community. We transport individuals who are literally hours away from a higher level of trauma care if taken by ground.”
This is how Flight Nurse JohnRey Hassan described what it’s like to work at REACH 18 in Willits, California, an air ambulance base located in the heart of Mendocino County. Due to its remoteness, REACH 18 has quickly become a lifeline for the entire north coast region.
With a variety of calls coming in each day, it is a very rare thing for this crew to be left feeling surprised. However, early one afternoon, REACH 18 Program Manager, Jeff Cress received a desperate phone call from an intensive care unit physician who was facing a rather large predicament.
“When I answered the call, Chris immediately said ‘Hey, I really need your help. I have a really unusual request,” said Jeff.
Christopher Voscopoulos, a physician at St. Helena Hospital, quickly explained to Jeff that he had a patient who was suffering from an abdominal aneurysm and required emergency surgery. The problem was that their closest vascular surgeon was located at Ukiah Valley Medical Center, nearly two hours away by car.
“When we went to notify our vascular surgeon about this patient, we didn’t realize that he was all the way in Ukiah,” said Christopher. “I picked up the phone and I called Jeff and said ‘we need to get this guy down here right now because this patient doesn’t have two more hours.”
Without a second thought, Jeff set a plan in motion. He told Christopher to notify the surgeon that a REACH helicopter would be picking him up on the helipad at Ukiah Valley Medical Center. Next, he called the crew at REACH 18 in Willits to see if they would be able to complete the transport. On duty, that day was Pilot Andrea Sacchetti, Flight Nurse JohnRey Hassan, and Flight Nurse Melody Winslow.
Andrea was the one who picked up the call from Jeff.
“When I answered the phone, Jeff asked if we’d be able to fly a surgeon from Ukiah down to St. Helena,” said Andrea. “It was only my third or so flight with REACH so I didn’t have any frame of reference for how unusual of a request this was.”
After talking it over with her crewmates, Andrea soon realized that despite the transport being unusual, the reasoning behind the flight was not out of the ordinary. In fact, it aligned perfectly with REACH’s 30-year mission to always do what is right for the patient.
“The three of us talked about it,” said Andrea. “Melody and JohnRey both said they had never taken a call like this before, but we all agreed that if it was the right thing to do for the patient, then it was the right thing for us to take the flight.”
While the crew began their pre-flight preparations, Jeff Cress placed a call into Flight Guard, REACH’s 24-hour communications center, to finalize the transport details and dispatch the aircraft. While the call was just part of another day at work for Communications Specialist Brianne Olson, the request was definitely one rarely encountered by Flight Guard.
“It is not unusual for us to get an occasional call from a Program Manager, said Brianne. “ But in my nine years at REACH, this is only the second time that I know of, where we’ve flown a doctor specifically to care for a patient.”
With their pre-flight preparations complete and an official dispatch from Flight Guard, Andrea, JohnRey, and Melody headed out to the helipad to board the aircraft. As they were preparing to lift off, an odd sensation came over both Melody and JohnRey.
“It was a different feeling,” said JohnRey. “Normally we are so focused on getting the patient to definitive care and this time we were really trying to get definitive care to the patient.”
The flight from the base to the hospital in Ukiah took only a few minutes. When Andrea had the aircraft safely shut down on the helipad, JohnRey and Melody headed inside to give the surgeon a safety briefing before escorting him out to the aircraft.
“It was a really quick flight,” said Melody. “We did have the opportunity to show the surgeon a few landmark spots like Mount St. Helena though.”
A short while later, Andrea was making her final approach onto the helipad at St. Helena Hospital. After touching down, JohnRey and Melody escorted the surgeon inside where a team was standing by waiting to take the patient into the operating room.
While this transport may have been out of the ordinary, the crew definitely walked away still feeling a sense of accomplishment. We think JohnRey summarized it best when he said, “While we may have been operating more as a shuttle service that day, we still provided patient care in the sense that without the use of the medical helicopter, there would have been no way for this surgeon to get down to St. Helena in time to save that patient’s life.”