LifeFlight helicopters soar over Halifax daily. Meet two of the dedicated people behind the vital service

H aligonians usually hear it before they see it. The roar of revolving rotor blades cleaving the air prompts people to look to the sky, where they see a blue, white, and red Sikorsky S-76C+ helicopter. The Emergency Health Services LifeFlight air ambulance is en route to landing on the rooftop helipad at the Halifax Infirmary or the IWK Health Centre, transporting a patient in dire need of medical attention.

Nineteen years ago, Eastern Passage resident Adam MacDonnell was that patient. He was 16 and living with his parents in Inverness, N.S. One Sunday night in August 2001, on his way home from seeing Wide Mouth Mason play in Port Hawkesbury with some friends, the driver went too fast on a dirt road in Mabou and flipped the car.

The crash threw MacDonnell from the vehicle. “My first memory was of opening my eyes and thinking that someone was on top of me,” he says. His right leg was broken, and that foot was pressing close to his chin. A farmer, whose barking dog led him to the accident, called 911. Volunteer firefighters arrived first, then an ambulance took MacDonnell to the local fire station, which had a helipad.

Photo: Tammy Fancy

A LifeFlight helicopter was waiting there to fly MacDonnell to Sydney hospital, where he had two surgeries to fix a broken femur and pelvis and more than 200 stitches and 30 staples put in his back. Now 34, MacDonnell is a deputy sheriff at Halifax Law Courts. He remains grateful for the LifeFlight team that saved his life.

“I had a lot of bleeding, so the timing of getting me to the hospital was critical,” says MacDonnell. “If it wasn’t for LifeFlight, I probably wouldn’t have my wife and my two beautiful children.”

Based at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, an Adult Critical Care team consists of two pilots, a nurse, and a paramedic. They’re trained to treat and transport critically ill and injured patients, most of whom require care from specialists at the Halifax Infirmary.

In addition to two helicopters operated by Canadian Helicopters, there’s an airplane operated by PAL Aerospace, a ground ambulance, and their teams plus administrative support and dozens of medical personnel including a team of Critical Care Specialists from the IWK. However, it’s the helicopter that is most visible to Haligonians as they walk to work and barbecue in their backyards.

Shawn McCarville. Photo: Tammy Fancy.

Shawn McCarville, who grew up in Dartmouth, joined LifeFlight in 2011 after working as a commercial pilot in Western Canada, the Arctic, and Toronto for nine years. “LifeFlight provides a meaningful service and allows me to give back to my home community,” he says. Like the rest of the team, he works 12-hour day or night shifts. He’s also the base manager, overseeing the pilots’ schedules.

A LifeFlight mission starts with a telephone call to a 911 dispatcher who is exclusive to the program, who sends a request to an on-call physician. The pilot is alerted and checks the weather to determine whether it’s clear to fly. (Heavy snow or icy conditions are deemed unsafe.) The team will either meet a ground ambulance at one of the 65 helipads across Nova Scotia or pick up a patient at a hospital.

Some patient pickups are more dramatic than others. Missions in the dark can be tricky, but night-vision goggles help pilots see potential hazards such as wires, trees, and buildings. McCarville’s most challenging rescue took place in the woods, where he had to pinpoint the position of an injured man. After dropping off the nurse and paramedic to hike in on foot, he spotted the man from the air, then hovered above him to indicate his location.

“Trust is huge,” says McCarville. “We treat the entire team as part of our crew, and we’re always looking out for each other.”

Crystal Upshaw, a critical-care nurse with LifeFlight’s Adult Services Team, grew up in Regina watching Emergency, Quincy, and ER. “I was fascinated by rescue as a kid,” she says. After moving to Halifax in 2001, she drove to the Halifax Infirmary to see if she could get a job in the ICU and saw LifeFlight land on the roof. “I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she says, “but I wanted to have more critical-care experience before I applied.”

Crystal Upshaw. Photo: Tammy Fancy.

In 2007, Upshaw went for a ride-a-long flight and loved it. “I said, I’ll clean your toilets, just please hire me!” She got a job, and while she didn’t have to clean toilets, she did require specialized training, including a winter-survival course and “dunker” training for a water crash.

“Everyone who works for LifeFlight are all pretty alike,” says Upshaw. “We like the autonomy, the challenge, and the chaos. Most of our work is hospital transport, but the calls that get our adrenaline pumping are to the scene of an accident. We know if we don’t get there quickly, someone might die.”

Upshaw was the nurse who hiked into the woods to rescue the injured man on McCarville’s mission. “From one day to the next I don’t know if I’ll be going to a beach, the woods, or a hospital,” she says. “We’re challenged in the natural environment—maybe it’ll be cold or hot, or bugs will be biting you.”

Some patients on flights are terrified. Upshaw and the paramedic must soothe them. “Once we have their pain and anxiety under control, they often look out the window at the view and calm down,” she says. “They’ve probably had a terrible time up to that point, but now they can relax.”

Upshaw can’t imagine doing any other kind of work. “I love it now like the first day I started,” she says. “We feel like we really make a difference in people’s lives.”

That difference was reinforced last year at a LifeFlight open house, when a man who had been in a car accident thanked her and the paramedic who had treated him. “He got teary and was very grateful,” she says. “We all feel privileged to do this kind of work.”

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