Their story is our story.
Help where it’s needed
Brad Robert lay on the freezing asphalt, bleeding hard.
A few minutes earlier he had stopped to help the victims of a car crash on a lonely stretch of U.S. 20 at Riley 36 miles west of Burns. As he stood beside the road trying to call 911, a semi-truck swerved to miss the wreckage and hit him.
“All nine wheels ran over my legs, and I remember every one of them. I remember tumbling as I was being dragged behind him,” said Robert, an Air Force Lieutenant colonel and F-15 fighter pilot who was stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base near Boise.
When everything was still again, Robert completed the call to 911 on his cell phone that miraculously landed next to him. After he told his wife, Wendy, hot to apply a tourniquet to his bleeding legs, he had one more request.
“I honestly thought I was about to pass out and then die. At one point, I actually had my wife bring my kids out so I could tell them goodbye,” Robert said.
Less than two hours later, an Air Life of Oregon helicopter arrived on the scene. Soon, the helicopter was en route to St. Charles Bend with Lt. Col. Robert and 19-year-old Barbara Stacey, the driver of one of the wrecked cars. Both were in grave condition. A year after that November 2000 accident, Stacey had returned to college and Robert had returned to light duty with the Air Force.
Had the accident happened 18 years earlier, both would probably be dead. Before Air Life of Oregon started flying on Aug. 5, 1985, the mortality rate for accident victims in Central Oregon was more than twice that of the Willamette Valley.
“In those days, if you got in a really bad car wreck at Hampton Station (60 miles east of Bend on U.S. 20) there weren’t even any phones around there,” said Vern Bartley, director of Air Life. “The golden hour in Central Oregon was jokingly called the ‘golden day.’”
The golden house is the first hour after an injury. Bartley, a former Bend firefighter and paramedic, remembers the frustration of losing patients on the long trips to the hospital. The East Cascades Emergency Medical Services Council, of which Bartley was a member, decided to find a better way in the early 1980s. It looked at options for communication, training and transport and decided quicker transportation would be the most effective change.
“We were not bent on getting a helicopter. If a bus would have been better we’d have a bus now,” Bartley said.
Civilian air ambulances were rare at that time, with only about a half dozen operating in the nation. When studies showed a helicopter could work here, Bartley and his colleagues sought St. Charles Bend’s support.
The board liked the idea and in May 1985 cautiously gave its support on the condition the program be self-supporting in three years. Bartley was named director. The next four months were a blur.
“There was so much to get done. We didn’t have a helicopter. We didn’t have a staff. All we had was an idea.”
Air Life contracted with Air Methods Corp. to provide the helicopter and pilots. That arrangement continues to this day. Bartley hired a chief flight nurse who arranged to borrow St. Charles emergency room nurses when a call came in. Local fire department paramedics would fly along for $10 a flight to trains the nurses in field trauma care.
Air Life was ready to fly Aug. 5, but the phone didn’t ring. Bartley was getting nervous the third day when the first call came. A woman was injured in a car accident on US 97 north of Bend that claimed one person’s life. Air Life scooped the injured woman up and took her to St. Charles, where she recovered from her wounds.
By the end of its first year of operation, Air Life had flown 207 patients—seven more than feasibility studies predicted. The scramble continued over the next three years. An innovative membership program was launched with the help of volunteers. On Jan. 1, 1987, Air Life was in the black.
“A lot of people in the community said, ‘you’ll never make it,’ and today we’re one of the dominant air ambulance services in the United States,” Bartley said.
In 1990, Air Life leases its first fixed-wing aircraft, a twin-engine Cessna 421. That opened up Eastern Oregon to Air Life. The Cessna was replaced by a turbine-powered Pilatus PC12 in 1998. With the Pilatus’s 320 mph airspeed, Air Life could reach any place in Oregon within one hour of a call.
The added capability propelled growth. Air Life had flown more than 9,000 flights by 2001, 859 in 2001 alone. By spring 2002, the organization was serving communities throughout Central and Eastern Oregon. It had aircraft and crews at three bases: two in Bend and one in La Grande.
Its staff grew to include 11 flight nurses, 11 respiratory therapists, 12 pilots, five mechanics, eight office people, 14 dispatchers and 12 nurses who fly if an infant or pregnant woman is involved.
Bartley said Air Life’s success is based on one primary principle: caring for people like Col. Robert and Barbara Stacey.