'A flying ICU': Rural Neb. air medical service celebrates 30 years

The service, opened in 1989 by medical service provider Air Methods, operates out of Crete and serves a 160-mile radius


Collin Spilinek
Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.

About once a day, a blue and white helicopter takes flight over Southeastern Nebraska. Most of the time, it's on a life-or-death mission.

For 30 years, StarCare has provided helicopter transportation for medical emergencies in the region. The air ambulance's trips drastically reduce the amount of time it would otherwise take to get a crash victim or a person in need of urgent medical care to an area hospital.

For 30 years, StarCare has provided helicopter transportation for medical emergencies in the region. (Photo/StarCare)
For 30 years, StarCare has provided helicopter transportation for medical emergencies in the region. (Photo/StarCare)

The service, opened in 1989 by medical service provider Air Methods, operates out of Crete and serves a 160-mile radius. It started as a project between Bryan Memorial Hospital, Lincoln General Hospital (now part of Bryan Health), Saint Elizabeth Community Health Center, Eastern Ambulance Service, and LinAire Inc. to provide care for rural areas.

Josh Kendrick has worked as a flight paramedic at StarCare for five years. He said the base completes about 20 to 25 trips a month.

They typically consist of a pilot, flight nurse and flight paramedic, who work together to do a job that traditionally would require several more people.

"When we're out there, we don't have the support staff of a hospital," Kendrick said. "We don't have a respiratory therapist or ventilator, we don't have a pharmacist to mix our drugs, we don't have a laboratory to interpret laboratory results for us. We do that on our own."

Lead pilot Mick Sager said it's the prep work that's done before the call even comes in that can make or break the team's success.

"You come in in the morning, you do your pre-flight, you check the weather, so you get kind of an idea of what it’s going to be like all day," he said. "Once the call comes in, it's pretty much, where do they want us to go and where we're taking the patient."

Sager has worked at StarCare since 2006, having previously flown for the Army and Coast Guard for 14 years and the Nebraska Army National Guard for two years. He and the other pilots work 12-hour shifts.

Despite their efforts to have everything prepared and to know the conditions ahead of time, Sager said weather predictions aren't always reliable, and often it's hard to tell until after takeoff.

"So those are kind of the harder ones, where you get in the air and you're expecting to get the patient and you have to turn around and divert or abort because the weather isn't as forecasted or as predicted," Sager said.

When making the decision to go to the scene or not, the team considers the weather conditions prior to receiving any patient information.

"That way, we don't make rash decisions on certain patient demographics, like a child," Kendrick said. "That doesn't push us to make those unsafe decisions."

Along with providing medical care, StarCare also works with evacuation, and has lent its services for disaster relief in places like Texas, Florida and Virginia.

StarCare also assisted during the recent Nebraska flooding, flying supplies to hospitals in Fremont and Norfolk.

"We helped out up in Fremont when they were moving people from the nursing home to the hospital," Sager said. "So we were helping transport people in bulk just to get them out of there and make room."

Jan Shaner, who served as the program manager until 2014, oversaw the program for 18 years. She was a flight nurse in Minnesota prior to working at StarCare.

"I loved the autonomy that we got and it was just an opportunity to come to this program and help it grow," she said.

As program manager, Shaner oversaw the day-to-day operations, safety training and outreach education. She said StarCare has made a lot of changes in the 30 years it has served the region.

"It was really important that we made sure we were meeting the needs of the patients, because the patients were evolving and so were our capabilities," Shaner said. "We're essentially a flying intensive care unit."

Part of those changes included analyzing response times and balancing a speedy transport with safety. StarCare went through an accreditation process called the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS), which Shaner said showed the public they were meeting the standards of other air medical service providers.

Along with its day-to-day operations, StarCare also works with area fire departments and hospitals to give free landing zone classes, Kendrick said.

"We want them to provide the best care that they can safely, as well," he said. "So those landing zone classes for the volunteer fire departments, they need to know how to get us safely on the ground and how to set up a landing zone so that we can do our job safely and assist them when an emergency happens."

Kendrick said he was incredibly proud to be a part of StarCare, which he said challenges its team members to learn more be the best they can be.

"We've been here for 30 years now, and we expect to be here for another 30-plus," he said. "You won't find any crew member that isn't proud to work here and be a part of Air Methods."

Sager said he also was honored to be part of a team that works together for the betterment of the community. But it's also a team that he fully trusts, which is what he tells patients' families.

"I just reassure them that they're in good hands and I trust them with my life," he said. "Just like they trust me with their life flying to get them there."

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©2019 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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