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Sanford adds lifeflight: Bemidji area now served by two air emergency services

Ross Holland, a Bemidji businessman, talks with Kari Zak, a Sanford Bemidji LifeFlight paramedic, during a Wednesday morning dedication ceremony of the new lifeflight service. Sanford Bemidji LifeFlight, which begins operation Sunday, will be the second local life flight service since North Memorial Ambulance Services established a base here in fall 2007. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Mike Schultz, base supervisor of Sanford Bemidji LifeFlight, demonstrates how the EC-145 helicopter is equipped with a full ambulance cot that can be loaded in and out of the aircraft through the clam-shell doors in the rear. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI - The region is about to have two lifeflight services.

Sanford Bemidji Medical Center has established a Sanford LifeFlight base at the Nary airport to transport patients between hospitals and respond to the scene of medical emergencies. The service begins at 7 a.m. Sunday.

"We're pleased to serve this area for decades to come," said Tim Meyer, director of Sanford Health's emergency air transport.

Sanford LifeFlight becomes the second air ambulance dedicated to the Bemidji area. North Memorial Ambulance Service was established in fall 2007 at Bemidji Regional Airport.

North Memorial in 2007 responded to more than 700 requests for service in the Bemidji area.

Sanford Bemidji LifeFlight anticipates having upwards of 350 calls a year, Meyer said. The service will handle Sanford Bemidji Medical Center's estimated 300 annual transport calls and an unknown number of hospital referrals and on-scene responses.

A press release issued by North Memorial Health Care stated that it remains committed to the Bemidji region and will continue offering emergency helicopter service to northwestern Minnesota.

"North Memorial is steadfast in our commitment to ensure the closest appropriate air resource, which ultimately is a best practice for trauma, stroke, segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) and other critical time-sensitive emergencies," said Dr. Patrick Lilja, medical director of North Memorial Ambulance Services, in the release. "Moving forward, we anticipate a collaborative working relationship with Sanford Health."

Much like North Memorial is affiliated with North Memorial Medical Center in the Twin Cities, Sanford is affiliated with Sanford Health.

But neither is obligated to transfer its patients to hospitals in their health care system. Both will transport patients to whichever medical center is deemed best for the patient.

Sanford Health has purchased three new rotor-wing EC-145 helicopters, one of which is stationed in Fargo, N.D, and one in Bemidji.

North Memorial's air ambulance service operates an Italian-made Agusta Power-109, which, according to North Memorial, is the fastest civilian helicopter in the world.

Sanford Health unveiled the new Sanford Bemidji LifeFlight Service in a dedication ceremony Wednesday morning at Bemidji Regional Airport.

"This demonstrates Sanford's commitment to developing the services here," said Paul Hanson, the president of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota.

Bemidji's $7.2 million helicopter can transport up to two patients at a time and is equipped with technologies including autopilot, single-pilot instrument flight rules and night vision goggles. The rear of the helicopter has clam-shell doors allowing for the use of a full ambulance cot.

"We bring the intensive care unit to the patient's bedside," Schultz said.

Each Sanford flight is equipped with a pilot, registered nurse and paramedic. The nurse must have at least three years experience in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and the medic must have at least three years experience with a busy ambulance service.

"We do a lot more ICU-type care," said flight paramedic Christy Rukamp.

Rukamp said lifeflight staff works most often with patients who need critical care.

"It's nice in that we have critically sick patients who need our help and we can get them there a lot faster," she said.

Sanford LifeFlight in the Fargo region was founded in 1984 with two fixed-wing airplanes, transporting 1,000 patients a year. The fleet now includes four airplanes and four helicopters, including the one in Bemidji.

Larry Stillday, who offered an American Indian blessing of the aircraft, said his role in the dedication ceremony brought him back more than 30 years ago to his experiences in South Vietnam.

"A helicopter was the most beautiful thing out there," he said. "They rescued us many, many times."