Jackman-Atkinson: Care in the air


By: Kate Jackman-Atkinson


Rural Manitoba is characterized by sparse population and wide open spaces. We have lots of fields, not a lot of houses and wide-open prairie sky. There are lots of great things about living in rural Manitoba, but there is one big downside to living so far from a major urban center. What happens in case of medical emergency?

We have EMS paramedics, but they are limited by the physical limitations of the ambulances they drive. An ambulance can only travel so fast on the road and it can only get somewhere where there is a road. The fact remains that life threatening accidents don’t always take place on the road; they take place in fields and down ravines and on remote, pristine beaches. When time is of the essence, there is a lot of Manitoba that isn’t particularly accessible to traditional ambulances.

While Manitoba has had other air ambulances, last year, the province signed a 10-year deal with Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS), a non-profit organization that provides helicopter ambulance services in Alberta and Saskatchewan. STARS began in Alberta in 1985 and now operates out of six bases, including Winnipeg.

The STARS presence in Manitoba began as an experiment during the 2009 flood when they were asked to come in temporarily and help. Three days after arriving, they were called to Westroc Hutterite Colony where an eight-year-old boy had been swept into a culvert and was in a coma. The helicopter turned a two-hour drive into a 20-minute flight and the boy woke up 13 days later with no lasting injury. They were called again during the 2011 flood and asked to stay.

The flights are staffed by two pilots, a critical care nurse and a paramedic and are designed to bring the emergency room to the patient while providing ongoing pre-hospital care. During the crew’s 12 hour shift, they wait on standby at their hanger at Richardson International. When a call comes in, their goal is to be in the air within eight minutes. 

When not answering emergency calls, STARS also does inter-facility transfers, a service also provided by the province’s Lifeflight Air Ambulance airplane.

These services may be based in Winnipeg, but they are extremely important to us in rural areas. Winnipeg residents don’t need a helicopter to get them to a Winnipeg hospital quickly. We have skilled local doctors operating out of good hospitals but when people are seriously sick or injured, they can’t provide the specialized care needed. These patients need to be sent to specialists in Winnipeg. We don’t have these hospitals on our doorsteps and being able to access them quickly is of the utmost importance. 

Anyone who has experienced STARS speaks highly of the service -- they are well-equipped and quick.  They were once called to an accident scene on the Arden ridge and arrived within minutes of the Neepawa-based ambulance.

Few would argue over the value of the service in terms of saving lives, but the monetary value of the service can be quantified. The average round trip has a price tag of $5,400. At this point, the province funds 100 per cent of the STARS budget but they have made it clear that the private sector must begin to come up with some of the funding. In Alberta, the government funds only 20 per cent of the program and in Saskatchewan, where STARS set up a base in 2011, the government funds 50 per cent. 

Manitoba has a challenge when it comes to achieving this high level of private sector funding. We don’t have the scale of industry working in rural Manitoba, be it oil and gas (as in Alberta) or potash (as in Saskatchewan), to make large corporate donations.

These industries have been strong supporters of the service and the less wealthy, and less well organized, agriculture industry is unlikely to provide the same level of support. The long-term viability of the program will have to rely more on individual Manitobans opening up their wallets. In the hopes that the service will be there to help should they need it.

Losing the service would be a great loss to all of us.

Kate Jackman-Atkinson is a contributor to myWestman.ca and is the Editor of the Neepawa Banner.