Incoming! Is Lake County Ready for Peak Season?
Medical Air Services: A Trifecta in Leadville Today!
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
“The visitors and residents of Lake County are well-covered with three medical air services that are all relatively close,” stated Chad Bowdre, Director of Customer Relations for Classic Air Medical. “That’s a wonderful thing. Be assured, that you’ll be well taken care of no matter which color aircraft is coming for you.”
It’s a strong statement in fact as Leadville Today (LT) reveals its findings after a detailed, multi-month discovery into air medical services and the three companies serving Lake County: Flight for Life (FFL), Classic Air Medical, and REACH Air Medical Services. In today’s Part One of “Incoming,” LT reports its discussions with these providers which allow for a very unique – and fortunate – reality when it comes to getting you off this mountain when you’re having the worst day of your life.
In addition, LT made several media inquiries to the local, tax-based organizations and facilities charged to coordinate with these private air medical companies, including Lake County Search and Rescue (LCSAR) and St. Vincent Health (SVH), and the Leadville/Lake County Airport (LXV). Those discoveries will be reported in Part Two of this “Incoming” series.
In short, the good news is that Lake County is well-covered and cared for in Central Colorado. However, like the healthcare industry itself, recent technological advancements surrounding medical aircraft and their crews have created an entirely new landscape when it comes to medical services being provided in Leadville Today. It’s not the same old helipad story.
To that end, certain facts which were uncovered during LT’s discovery bear reporting. As the media landscape continues to change, at Leadville Today our 21st-century news model is based on inquiring, asking simple questions, and providing an opportunity for response. Everyone can choose their lane, but it will be reported accordingly, with readers drawing their own conclusions regarding transparency and accountability.
That Big Orange Bird in The Sky
“Most of the Flight for Life (FFL) operations Leadville sees come out of Frisco,” explained Kathy Mayer, FFL Program Director. It was early May and the lead manager for the operations joined Gianna Lisac, the Communications Advisor for Centura Health, supporting Flight For Life® Colorado for an open and transparent Skype interview with Leadville Today (LT).
It has already been a pretty busy year for the FFL medical team for service calls in Lake County, reporting 18 helicopter flights and 11 ambulance transports (thru March 2021, updates coming). Nearly all of those calls would involve what the industry refers to as “interfacility transports,” taking the patient from one hospital to another when the care required exceeds what the primary facility offers, more specifically in Lake County, the patient requires surgery or has complicated cardiac concerns.
This orange medical helicopter is hands down the most recognizable in the high country, especially when traveling across a bluebird Colorado sky. FFL’s presence in the skies above Leadville provided its own news feed in the years before social media or the internet. Hearing the whirling of its rotor blades brought people to their windows, shading their eyes to see if it was the brightly-colored aircraft because it meant someone was in trouble. And in a small town like Leadville, it likely was someone you knew.
For decades in Lake County, the hero who flew most of those transports was Patrick Mahany Jr. a Frisco-based FFL pilot. A New York native and Vietnam Veteran, his career spanned 27 years. If you hitched a ride on this orange bird during that time, it was likely Mahany who flew you down off this mountain. In July 2015, Flight for Life pilot Patrick Mahany and crew members crashed into the parking lot outside St. Anthony Summit Medical Center just seconds after takeoff. Mahany did not survive the accident and his service is memorialized on the Fallen Heroes Highway plaques which can be seen along Highway 91 between Leadville and Copper Mountain. It’s an important reminder of the sacrifice these medical crews make, especially flying at high altitudes and in adverse weather conditions.
Today, Flight For Life® Colorado provides critical care transport with five helicopters, three ambulances and three airplanes operating out of the Denver metro area, Summit County, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Durango. The FFL medical crew has very specific assignments, including a nurse paramedic crew, seven nurses and three paramedics out of Frisco. Their pilot group includes some of their most senior pilots in the state, one who has been on staff for over three decades.
Clearly, medical air services have been a part of the healthcare landscape in Lake County for a while. In fact, as medical facilities in neighboring Eagle and Summit Counties grew, keeping pace with community wealth and investment, so did the number of transports over to St. Anthony’s in Frisco. In addition to Flight for Flight being Lake County’s closest and therefore most often used air medical service, it also maintains a critical care ambulance owned and managed by Centura Health. The same crew operates both the air and land transports because there are times when the aircraft is grounded due to weather.
“We respond to St. Vincent’s fairly often,” Mayer explained referring to the ground transportation which usually requires advanced onboard medical equipment necessary due to the patient’s medical condition, or in some cases their weight. Thankfully FFL representatives were forthcoming in sharing those statistics with Leadville Today as follows and to be updated as received.
- 2019—25 helicopter flights, and 9 ambulance transports.
- 2020—24 helicopter flights and 1 ambulance transport.
- 2021 (July 2020—March 2021) 18 helicopter flights, 11 ambulance transports.
One of the things that separate out FFL’s services is that they maintain whole blood on their aircraft which is a pretty rare find among any air medical services in the United States.
“We are very fortunate to be able to do that,” explained Mayer. “Because we are a hospital-based program we can carry whole blood which is really making a difference for our patients in terms of trauma care resuscitation.” While FFL is clearly still the front-runner in Leadville Today, there’s competition in every industry. Fortunately, when it comes to the medical air services game, Lake County comes out the winner with an almost unheard-of three-provider region for such a small, remote community. Leadville is a good GPS location to have, especially when it’s you – or someone you love – having the worst day of your life.
Look, Up In The Sky
Classic Air Medical expanded into Colorado seven years ago, starting in Steamboat Springs their operations now include 5 bases across the state, with Glenwood being the closest to Leadville. Classic is the second closest after FFL, marking a 25-30 minute flight to Mt Elbert and Mt Massive.
“We’ve been around for 33 years, starting in Page, Ariz. right at the edge of Lake Powell, primarily as a Search and Rescue operation,” stated Bowdre. Eventually, the company moved into the medical services lane. But it’s their cutting-edge aircraft that leads the message with this operation, and when manuvering in and out of the tallest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, mechanical prowess is important.
“Classic is the only twin-engine medical helicopter in Colorado,” explains Bowdre during a phone interview with LT in early June. “The larger size is a bit more capable at higher altitudes, as well as carrying a larger load, but with a rotor blade with only an additional two feet in diameter than the smaller, single-engine aircraft.”
It’s likely the reason that Classic reports a shift in recent years as one-third of their service calls are now considered on-scene rescues with the other two-thirds being interfacility transports. In other words, they don’t need no stinking helipad. Their aircraft and pilots are designed and trained to land in complicated, technically challenging locations, often cutting hours off transport time, a critical life-saver in high country terrain rescues.
But once you have more than one option in emergency services, who makes the call? For years, all medical transports were initially brought to St. Vincents where a “stabilize and transport” model slowly greeted the 21st century. But as competition and aircraft advancements grew in the medical air service industry, Lake County’s central location gave it an advantageous position. While many rural communities across the country are hard-fought to have one option, there are several to choose from in Leadville Today.
But how does that work? Who makes the call and to which air medical services company? It was a true-to-life April Fools Day rescue that prompted many of those questions and led LT to the discovery of Lake County’s third air medical services provider.
REACH-ing Out, Asking About Facts
Many LT readers may remember the April 1, 2021 mining shaft accident which was correctly reported by Leadville Today as being an open mine shaft rather than a “sinkhole.” However, there was another fact reported in that official statement released to media outlets that raised eyebrows. It was that change in protocol that laid the groundwork for this story. While the procedural shift may have been something that had been going on “in the field” for a while, it was the first time it was on-the-record.
That April patient was transported directly up to the airport for evacuation, and not first to the Leadville hospital. So then, what is the current situation concerning air medical services? Who makes the call? And how do decision-makers determine which of the three air services will be called in? It was time to have a better understanding of this new model and if the process is providing the best patient care.
As reported by the Public Information Officer, the medical air evac responding to the call for that May mining shaft accident was REACH, so LT reached out to the third provider for Lake County. The first inquiry was made on May 5 through the media portal on their website, then again on May 8. Finally, an email from Nicole Lee whose signature included no title nor links returned the communication asking, what the scope of the story would be about.
LT poised the same questions to REACH as it did to the other two carriers, an invitation to share information about their services, including how many transports they conduct out of Lake County, what their communication process is internally as well as with Leadville’s emergency responders, and most specifically, how the call came in for the April 1 patient transport from the mine shaft rescue.
“Thank you for your inquiry. We are unable to disclose the transport information you are requesting for your story,” was Lee’s response.
It was the first #redlight LT had discovered during its investigation, but several days later when a REACH helicopter’s unusual flight pattern above Mosquito Pass prompted some inquiries into the newsroom, LT circled back. REACH’s rep again refused an opportunity to provide information about their company’s activity in the skies above Leadville Today. Should that policy change, this post will be updated.
Fortunately, there’s more than one way to gather news in today’s landscape. And it was a green light from Lake County Search and Rescue’s Secretary, Becky Young who explained what REACH’s unusual flight pattern was in the skies above Leadville that June morning. That answer along with others will be reported as Leadville Today presents Part Two in its “Incoming” series regarding air medical services in Lake County. Tune in later this week as communication with the local hospital, airport and search and rescue crews are reported to residents and visitors.
Find out what tax-based public entities have relationships with these three private medical providers. What are their protocols for doing business with them? Who is making the decisions? And most importantly is Lake County prepared for the “Incoming” peak season? Until then, stay safe and keep an eye to the skies!
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, a digital media company located in Leadville, Colorado which owns Leadville Today and Saguache Today. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org