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Powered stretchers ‘back-saver’ for paramedics lifting obese patients

Ambulances are equipped with power-assisted stretchers that lower and lift; the stretchers can handle up to 700 pounds

By Jake Magee
The Janesville Gazette

JANESVILLE, Wis. — Fire department employees say they’re responding more often to calls involving obese patients, and while they have the equipment that helps, it’s not always enough.

On Friday, Janesville paramedics responded to Edgerton to help with a patient who weighed more than 400 pounds. Edgerton first responders needed help dealing with the overweight resident.

It’s a situation that’s been growing in frequency. Janesville emergency responders request additional personnel almost every day. Oftentimes the extra hands are needed to help move an obese patient, officials told The Gazette.

The growing obesity trend was a factor in the Janesville Fire Department’s decision to upgrade technology and equipment to better help overweight patients and reduce the risk of injury to emergency responders, officials said.

But the equipment sometimes doesn’t cut it. On rare occasions, helping an obese patient comes down to raw physical strength or unconventional methods, Janesville Fire Chief Randy Banker said.

At departments where Banker worked before joining the Janesville Fire Department, emergency responders had to tear out a home’s wall to remove a patient too big to fit through the door. During another incident, firefighters had to rig a pulley system to remove an obese patient from a basement.

“Sometimes it takes some ingenuity and patience,” Banker said.

Luckily, such drastic measures haven’t been required to help local patients, but that doesn’t mean Rock County is immune from the possibility.

It’s already been determined a wall will have to be removed should a 700-pound Beloit resident who lives at home ever need help, said firefighters and paramedics Tyler Maechtle and Nick Kettle.

“If that person were to come out, it would be cutting out walls. The person won’t fit through standard doorways or anything like that,” Kettle said.

Maechtle and Kettle are thankful for new equipment that makes helping obese patients easier. Janesville ambulances are equipped with power-assisted stretchers that lower and lift. They can be attached to devices in ambulance beds that make loading patients into the vehicles less strenuous, Maechtle said.

“Personally, for me, within weeks after we got it, my back already started feeling better,” he said. “This is a back saver for everyone. It takes a lot of the risk of injury out.”

The stretchers can handle up to 700 pounds.

“When I first got in 30 years ago, we thought 500 pounds was excessive for our cots,” Banker said.

When a patient weighs too much for the power stretchers, emergency responders use a slightly wider bariatric cot. It can be attached to a winch and pulled up ramps into the ambulance bed, Maechtle said.

Paramedics also have a “stair chair” to carry patients up and down staircases, he said.

But the equipment can’t always be used. Sometimes stretchers don’t fit in a house. Plush carpeting makes using the stair chair difficult, Maechtle and Kettle said.

“Believe it or not, they don’t make homes with putting stretchers through them in mind, generally,” Maechtle said.

If it’s too difficult to remove an obese patient, emergency responders call a fire engine. The additional personnel might help carry the patient out on a backboard, he said.

“Maneuvering through the house seems to be the biggest thing because the larger the patient, the more people it requires to lift the patient. The more people that you have, the more obstacles you have as well,” Kettle said. “It’s quite the team effort.”

Adding to the difficulty is the necessity of continuing care while transporting a patient. If an obese, pulseless patient needs to be taken to the hospital, emergency responders still need to administer care, such as CPR, while others carry him to the ambulance, Banker said.

“It’s hard for everybody,” he said. “It’s hard for patients, it’s hard for the family, it’s hard for us, but that’s partially what we’re here for.”

The problem could get worse before it gets better. The department doesn’t track how many obese patients it helps, but Maechtle, Kettle and Battalion Chief Ron Bomkamp believe the statistic is growing.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 67.6 percent of Rock County adults are overweight or obese. The national average is 63.6 percent.

“It sure seems that we’re picking up more people that are overweight,” Bomkamp said.

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