To the rescue — An inside look at Steamboat’s Classic Air Medical | SteamboatToday.com

To the rescue — An inside look at Steamboat’s Classic Air Medical

A Classic Air Medical helicopter touches down for training operation near Steamboat Springs.

This story originally ran in Steamboat Living magazine. 

When it comes to rescues in the Rockies, the cavalry doesn't get any better than Classic Air Medical, which has grown from one base in Woods Cross, Utah, 29 years ago to 11 bases throughout the West, including one in Steamboat Springs. With a fleet of fixed-wing planes, helicopters and highly trained pilots and medical professionals, the service has ushered in an era of prompt and professional medical care in the mountains. With apologies to Reader's Digest's Drama in Real Life department, read on for a sampling of recent rescues.

Jim Clark (Steamboat Springs)

Former Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Jim Clark knew he had a heart issue when he moved from Fort Collins to Steamboat for his "dream job" in September 2014. That's why he bought Classic Air Medical's family membership package as insurance. "They don't have a cath lab (cardiac catheterization) in Steamboat and I wanted to make sure I could get to one," he says. "It was very reassuring knowing Classic Air was here."

His foresight paid off on Dec. 7, 2015, when, sitting in his office, he felt his heart starting to beat rapidly and a tightness in his chest. Sure enough, he was having a heart attack.

An employee drove him to the Emergency Room, where they gave him an anti-coagulant, kept him overnight and, given his history, lined him up for a Classic Air Medical flight to the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland at 5 a.m. the next morning.

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With 45 mph winds along the Front Range, it was too windy for the helicopter, so they picked him up at the hospital and drove him to Steamboat's Bob Adams airport, where they loaded him into a fixed-wing airplane. "It was very quick and efficient," he says. "They bundled me up and loaded me in and before I knew it we were underway. They reassured me about everything they were doing, and even apologized for the bumpy ride."

Once at MCR, doctors performed an angiogram, discovering that the anti-coagulants had cleared up blockage in his left interior descending artery.

"The whole procedure was over before my wife even had time to drive down from Steamboat," Clark says. "But I was very nervous and anxious."

Later, he drove back home with his wife ("They don't give you the return flight," he says), and was back on the slopes and promoting Steamboat four short days later. He even attended a board meeting two days after he returned. "The worst part was I missed my ski lesson," he says. "But I made it up on an even better day."

Ryan McConnell (Arches National Park)

On March 12, 2014, just days after competing in the NCAA national ski racing championships in Park City, Utah, Montana State University student Ryan McConnell, 22, who grew up in Steamboat, was hiking in Arches National Park with his teammates for spring break. They'd already mountain biked for two days and were enjoying their final day before heading back to school.

That's when disaster struck. Scrambling up a rock fin, McConnell lost his footing and fell, landing on his back in a dry creek bed 100 feet below (rescuers credit his CamelBak as preventing his aorta from rupturing). He broke his C-2 vertebrae and suffered a serious brain injury and five internal organ injuries, including a lacerated liver and spleen and bruised lung.

His friends alerted authorities immediately, and within 25 minutes, rescuers from Classic Air Medical's Moab base reached him, stabilizing his neck and giving him medical care. Within the hour, he was helicoptered to St. Mary's Hospital & Medical Center in Grand Junction, where he spent a week in ICU and another in pre-neural care before transfering to Denver's Craig Hospital for an additional two months of treatment.

"He never would have gotten to St. Mary's within that golden treatment hour without them," says his father Tim, who volunteers for Search and Rescue in Steamboat. "They were onsite with 25 minutes, and had him at St. Mary's within 55 minutes."

After a long rehabilitation process, McConnell has since gradated from Montana State and now works for a civil engineering firm in Denver, where Tim says "he's about 98.5 percent" recovered. "He's lost a little sense of smell, but that's about it and is expected with this kind of injury," he says. "It could have been a lot worse."

Mitchell Stubbs (Flat Tops Wilderness Area)

In late July, 2016, paraglider Mitchell Stubbs, 26, a Mechanical Engineering graduate from the University of Colorado, assessed the light winds one last time and then jumped from his perch at 11,000 feet in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. On his family's annual camping trip up Coffee Pot Creek, he'd join his fly-fishing father, Randall, back at camp that afternoon.

It didn't work out that way.

"I realized I wasn't making any headway, so I started making my way down," he told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. "Then the wing started to flap, a sign of unstable conditions. When I was about 100 feet off the ground, I looked up to see half of my wing nosedive. The next thing I knew I was on the ground."

Stubbs suffered a broken hip and broken vertebrae in the crash. Out of cell service, with little water and no first aid kit or way to start a fire, he settled down for a long, long night.

When his son failed to return to camp, Randall drove into cell range and called 911. At dawn the next morning, Garfield County Search and Rescue began its search, aided by GPS coordinates Mitchell's friend had provided after dropping him off for his flight. "That narrowed the search from 20 square miles to three square miles, which made all the difference," Randall says.

Since the area was so remote, Search and Rescue president Tom Ice called in help from Classic Air Medical. "It could have taken us days to find him up there," he says. "With a helicopter, they could search more area faster."

The pilot was former Grand Canyon tour pilot Jack Montou. Joining him was flight nurse Stacy Lawson and paramedic Kraig Schlueter. "The biggest concern was the weather that night," Schlueter says. "There was a good chance for traumatic injuries and hypothermia."

Mistaking multiple snow patches for the white wing of Stubbs' paraglider, the crew eventually found his chute and touched down. "I was a little apprehensive about pulling the chute up," Schlueter says. "I knew there was a good chance I was going to find a body."

There was no sign of him. So they took to the air again, finding Stubbs a short while later. Now they had quick decisions to make. Getting him to another facility meant re-fueling, so they flew him to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, after which he was flown to University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.

While he made a full recovery, Stubbs has since given up paragliding. "Paragliding is inherently dangerous," he says. "To be a good pilot, you have to know when not to fly. I'm more of a 'go-for-it' kind of guy, and that will get you killed."

He credits Classic Air Medical with saving his life. "I'm grateful they were diligent in their search in such a large area," he says. "Their care was all that I could hope for considering the circumstances."

 

The “Sim Man”

“He’s lost his heartbeat! Begin compressions!”

With that, medical personnel for Classic Air Medical begin resuscitating their “victim” — not one of the hundreds they rescue annually, but a $120,000, 4G “Simulation Man” mannequin built by Laradal. It’s one of the most realistic medical training mannequins in the world, and few in the country. A controller behind a nearby screen can change everything from its heart rhythm to respirations, and even tell rescuers where something hurts.

“It pees, poops and even throws up on rescuers,” says marketing director Chad Bowdre, whose team uses the dummy to train medical personnel at its 11 flight bases throughout the West, including Steamboat, as well as other medical professionals. “It’s as real life as possible. Very few places are equipped with something this high-tech.”

If the “Sim Man” is high-tech, so is the trailer the “patient” is housed in — a custom-built, portable simulation lab trailer, the first of its kind in the country. It simulates a helicopter cockpit, evaluation quarters and medical room. “It emulates an ER room or ambulance bay, with the front mimicking our medical aircraft,” says flight paramedic Cory Oaks, adding it also lets them videotape, record and download rescue scenarios for critique later. “It’s designed to be identical to our interior flight environment — it’s an amazing resource.”

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