Saving Lives

CALSTAR flight nurse Vickie Shannon, center, and other emergency

He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. So, when the white Jeep Cherokee
he was riding in near east Gilroy rolled over several times, it
tossed the 11-year-old boy around inside like a pinball in a
He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. So, when the white Jeep Cherokee he was riding in near east Gilroy rolled over several times, it tossed the 11-year-old boy around inside like a pinball in a machine.

When Gilroy firefighters arrived on scene, the boy was bleeding profusely from a long gash in his forehead that was so deep it went down to his scalp. He was awake but lay motionless on the side of the dirt road.

Knowing the boy had to get to a hospital trauma center immediately, the firefighters called CALSTAR, the California Shock Trauma Air Rescue.

Within minutes, a helicopter lands on the remote road, between a sewage treatment pond and a stretch of power lines. As soon as the pilot gives the OK, flight nurses Kris “Tater” Tate and Roni Bursch unhook their seatbelts, grab their bags of equipment, and run toward the partially crushed Jeep and the small figure laying next to it.

The people on scene all seem to be thinking the same thing: hurry. Though they move quickly and with a sense of urgency, no one rushes. Tate and Bursch do a swift assessment of their young patient.

Paramedics have already put him in a C-spine collar to stabilize his neck, and the gash on his head is now wrapped in bandages to stem the bleeding. The boy is loaded onto a stretcher, and together the nurses and firefighters carry him to the helicopter.

Once on board, the women begin speaking rapidly into microphones in their helmets. They read each other monitor readings, verify how much of what kind of drugs they’re giving the boy, and tell the pilot what information needs to be passed on to the hospital.

The boy cannot feel or move his body from the waist down. Tate asks if he can give her a thumbs-up. He manages to raise his bloodied arms, and though his fingers twitch with effort, he is unable to make the hand gesture.

“Excellent job, my main man,” Tate says, recognizing how much the boy is struggling. His lips move.

Tate, who is closest to the boy’s head, leans in and tells him to speak into her microphone so she can hear him over the noise of the helicopter.

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” he says, panic overtaking his weak voice.

The nurses start talking faster in streams of medical terms as they pull new equipment out of different bags and compartments. Bursch gives the patient a shot to put him to sleep for a few minutes. Tate gets up onto the seat, balancing in a crouched position behind the boy’s head. As soon as he’s asleep, the two nurses work together to put a tube down the boy’s throat and attach a bag that will help him breathe.

Almost immediately, the monitor read-outs indicate he is becoming more stable. He is getting enough oxygen now, and his heartbeat is steady. As the helicopter lands at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, Tate and Bursch exchange a quick high-five and smile at each other.

They’ve just saved this boy’s life.

Swooping Saviors

CALSTAR is a nonprofit helicopter ambulance company with seven different stations spanning Northern California and the Central Coast. Of the seven, the Gilroy branch – known as CALSTAR 2 – is the busiest base, according to the CALSTAR Web site.

Based at Saint Louise Regional Hospital, CALSTAR 2 serves the counties of Santa Clara, San Benito, Merced, Monterey and Santa Cruz. About 80 percent of its medical services are for trauma calls requiring care that local hospitals aren’t equipped to handle, such as spinal cord injuries or injuries resulting from serious automobile accidents. The other 20 percent of CALSTAR 2’s medical services are interfacility transports, taking a critically ill patient from one hospital to another.

Trauma patients treated within an hour of their injuries – sometimes known as the “golden hour” – have a much better chance of survival. Because trauma patients from Gilroy or Hollister must be taken to hospitals in San Jose or San Francisco, their golden hour would be lost to transport time in a regular ambulance. But a 45-minute ambulance trip is only about a 15-minute helicopter flight.

CALSTAR has executed more than 520 flights to date this year, according to Bursch. Every CALSTAR crew consists of one pilot and two nurses. Nurses work two 24-hour shifts per week. Bursch has been a nurse for 18 years in various capacities, including in a critical-care facility and in a school.

“(CALSTAR) is probably my favorite job so far,” Bursch said. “It’s challenging. Everyone always has to be ‘on’ and ready to go, and we really make a difference.”

Tate, a nurse for about 12 years, likes the job because she’s helping people. She also enjoys the challenge of trauma care.

“The hard calls are the ones where you need something you don’t have,” she said in a softened New Jersey accent. “Sometimes you really wish you had four units of blood and a pocket-sized trauma surgeon. That’s when it’s a nerve-racking flight.”

Keeping cool during every flight – even if they’re nerve-racking – is part of the job for the nurses as well as CALSTAR pilots. On the day the 11-year-old boy was in the accident, Evan Toolajian flew the helicopter.

To the untrained eye, the landing area near the accident wasn’t going to work. It looked too close to the power lines, and the on-ground firefighters warned of windy conditions.

But Toolajian learned to fly planes and helicopters in the Navy, and he’s been flying for almost 20 years. He set CALSTAR 2 down away from the wires, and the wind caused no problems.

“I enjoy working with this company, the flying and I really like the people I work with,” said Toolajian, who has no formal medical training. “I get to help people, and my schedule here allows me to spend more time with my daughter. She’s 4 1/2.”

The pilots alternate working 12-hour days for one week and having one week off.

“We fly by the book, and we only do a job if it can be done safely,” Toolajian said. “We don’t take any risks.”

Before nurses can work on the helicopter, they are trained to learn aviation safety, how medical treatment needs to be adjusted when working at increasing altitudes, how to do preflight checks and how to assist the pilot.

CALSTAR does day and night flights, relying on a 30-million-candle power spotlight to land at night. Firefighters and ambulance crews on the ground radio the pilots describing the terrain and wind conditions, and help clear safe landing areas.

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