by Stan Wagner
My wife and I live on Waldron Island, and for years we have had a subscription to Airlift Northwest – as have most Waldron residents.
Airlift has always served Waldron well, and there has never been a medical emergency on the island when Airlift could not come to the rescue. That service is now endangered by policies of the air medical dispatch system, operated by San Juan EMS and is illustrated by my medical evacuation experience.
On April 11, 2012 a table saw kickback resulted in severe injuries to my right eye. My wife immediately called the Sheriff’s dispatch line to request emergency help, emphasizing the severity of my injury. The emergency team that showed up on Waldron was from San Juan EMS, flying on Island Air’s medevac plane. The EMS team was brought to our house, and, after looking at my wound, contacted Dr. Michael Sullivan for further instructions. Once sedated, I was loaded on to the San Juan EMS/Island Air Ambulance plane and taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bellingham. There, after a further assessment, doctors determined that they were neither equipped nor staffed to provide the treatment I needed, and they sent me via Airlift’s fixed wing plane to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
I reached the Harborview emergency room around 7:30 p.m., more than five hours after being evacuated from Waldron – a disastrous delay if there had been a chance to save my eye. Since, in all likelihood, I would have been transported directly to Harborview had Airlift Northwest come to my aid initially, I asked Airlift why they did not respond and was told they did not receive a call-out at the time of my accident even though they were available to fly to Waldron.
Airlift Northwest depends on making a certain number of emergency flights to San Juan County to make it economically viable to continue serving the islands from Bellingham. However, San Juan EMS, a taxpayer funded part of the San Juan hospital district, and its “partner” Island Air Ambulance Inc. are now attempting to get as many calls as they can thus reducing substantially the calls to Airlift from San Juan County and putting future service at risk.
The problem for Airlift is that San Juan EMS runs the emergency medical dispatch service.
I believe that San Juan EMS should be removed from the dispatch function to eliminate any conflict of interest. The county medical director and the medical director of San Juan EMS and Island Air Ambulance should be different persons.
(Editor’s note: Dr. Sullivan is medical control, a ER doctor and the Emergency Medicine Department Chairman at Peace Island Medical Center.)
The protocol for the new medical dispatch should be set so that Airlift is the first responder to any medical emergency, and only if they are not available, should San Juan EMSIsland Air Ambulance fly. This arrangement would protect us all with the assurance that Airlift would be the primary provider and would not lose further flights.
The county needs someone to step up to deal with this problem, and it has to be at the county or state level because the San Juan County Hospital District does not speak for all islanders.
All of us, including those living on San Juan Island, are at greater medical risk if Airlift Northwest’s services to the islands are curtailed, and we all should be working to ensure that this does not happen.