A High-Tech Hospital in the Sky

By
Katherine Brooks
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Plane-at-sunset
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HIGHLIGHTS | Medevac Flight Technology

  • Airlift’s fleet includes the latest rotary and fixed wing aviation technology and aircraft.
  • The Pilatus is one of their most advanced planes; the interior was designed by flight nurses.
  • Harborview provides training to keep flight nurses up to date with the latest procedures and technology.
  • Airlift’s technology allows them to accommodate all patients including bariatric, pediatric, obstetric, cardiac and trauma.

 

Airlift Northwest makes over 3,800 lifesaving flights per year with nine emergency aircrafts between their Washington and Alaska bases.

These lifesaving flights are a critical link between patients and immediate high-quality care. Bringing the intensive care unit (ICU) to an aircraft requires above-and-beyond training and technology.

Airlift’s nine aircrafts include both fixed wing (planes) and rotary wing (helicopters). Rotary wing services are used for moving patients from a scene response or an outlying hospital to another primary care facility, while fixed wing services are generally used for hospital-to-hospital transports.

Designed with nurses in mind

Pete Limbacher, a flight nurse for Airlift Northwest, has been working in these high-tech hospitals in the sky for 27 of his 34 years in nursing.

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Flight Nurse Pete Limbacher standing in front of the Pilatus.

Limbacher and fellow flight nurse and regional manager Jonas Landstrom worked with Airlift’s vendor to design the interior of one of their most advanced planes, the Pilatus. Their design improved patient and equipment accessibility and added capabilities for providing efficient and safe patient care.

“It was basically an empty tube and we could say this is where we need these items to go,” says Limbacher. “They took tape and marked where we wanted the equipment placed.”

Limbacher explains that when designing the interior, they had to consider their care protocols and spatially how nurses maneuver while seated, buckled and working on a patient. Everything needed to fit within a 5-by-10-foot space.

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Interior of the Pilatus, one of Airlift Northwest’s most advanced planes.

When transporting a patient, one nurse needs to be able to access the monitor and IV pumps, while their partner needs to be able to reach anything from a suction catheter to defibrillation cables. All equipment must be in reach, even during turbulence.

“We have the essentials of an ICU,” says Limbacher. “Except in the ICU, there’s more people to help you and more space to work. So, we have to rely on each other and our patient protocols when managing our patient care."

Not to mention they have their equipment setup down to a science, which makes their spatial constraints workable.

Equipment that saves lives

Since Limbacher started in emergency medicine, medical equipment has gotten smaller and lighter, which allows aircrafts to carry more essential accessories. The medical technology incorporated on Airlift’s aircrafts affords patients the opportunity to receive the care they need before even arriving at the accepting hospital.

Lifts and medical bridges

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A hydraulic crane helps move patients during the loading and unloading process.

From the tiniest of babies to the oldest adults, Airlift transports all patients whenever they can. And, for the Pilatus, that includes bariatric patients up to 450 pounds.

As an emergency care nurse, Limbacher is no stranger to lifting patients, whether in the hospital moving patients from bed to stretcher or on the tarmac moving from plane to stretcher. The Pilatus has an onboard hydraulic crane that helps move patients in and out of the aircraft with minimal interaction from the nurses.

On the stretcher there is a medical bridge (about knee level on the patient). The medical bridge has mounts to secure a ventilator, monitor and IV pumps. This piece of equipment keeps nurse’s hands free and available to provide patient care during the loading and unloading process.

Doppler technology

For obstetrics (OB) patients Airlift has doppler ultrasound technology, which listens to fetal heart tones and can be essential in providing and monitoring care. Not only is this crucial for flight care, it is also necessary to record and share this information with the receiving hospital. The lines of communication between the hospitals and the flight crew allow the care teams to have equipment ready ahead of time and prepared for the patient’s arrival.

Ventilation technology

For Limbacher, what stands out the most is the ability to provide advanced practice in patient care. Airlift has the ability to utilize technology like extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) and intra-aortic balloon pump (IABP), which are top-of-the-line medical interventions and can be lifesaving tools, but require advanced training to use efficiently and safely. Airlift teams up with UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospitals staff when managing these patients on transport.

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Flight nurses aboard aircraft check equipment.

Harborview Medical Center and Seattle Children’s provide the team at Airlift operating room (OR) time to practice intubation and other airway skills while working with anesthesiologists and certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA) on performing intubations.

“Most medevac programs in the country do not have this opportunity, they have to rely on mannequins and training rooms,” says Limbacher. “Being able to go into the OR is an invaluable learning experience because every airway is different.”

The advanced tools and training available to teams at Airlift allow flight nurses to provide early, in-flight care, which is beneficial to all their patients.

Making good on their founding mission

Airlift believes that lifesaving care is a human right for everyone, everywhere, at any stage of life. The medical technology that Airlift uses is top of the line, the design of the aircrafts is strategic and there is a passionate team that is making care possible for everyone who needs it.

But they are still looking for ways to technologically advance. In the very near future, Limbacher says Airlift plans to bring on ultrasound technology to improve their care for trauma patients by providing abdominal and chest ultrasounds in-flight.

For Airlift, the sky’s the limit when it comes to providing patient care.

Did You Know?

Employees and their families receive priority access to care scheduling. 206.520.5050

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