When Peter Werlin was a child growing up skiing at the resort his father managed, staff used his dad’s station wagon to transport the injured down the mountain for hospital care. That was the 1960s. Today, Peter and his colleagues provide life-saving critical care for one of the most accomplished medical transport systems in the world—Flight for Life® Colorado.
Flight for Life® Colorado, part of the Centura Health network, was the first air ambulance service in the nation and currently provides rapid transport of critically ill patients by helicopter, fixed wing aircraft and ground transportation. The fully accredited, not-for-profit service operates out of five Colorado bases and serves people in need across a seven-state region, with aircraft transfer capabilities to either coast.
“We transport some of the sickest patients and go to the most remote areas, including high altitude and backcountry locations,” explains Kathy Mayer, Director of Flight for Life® Colorado. “Our state-of-the-art equipment and experienced staff enable us to provide ICU-capable support en route to advanced care.”
From patients on ventilators and multiple IV medications to complex intra-aortic balloon pumps and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)—the most aggressive form of life support available, Flight for Life® Colorado can handle extremely critical patients. This includes high risk obstetric patients and babies as young as 30 days old. These vulnerable patients are moved directly from the scene of an accident or transported between hospitals when a higher level of specialty care is needed.
“I remember seeing one of the first Flight for Life helicopters flying overhead and knew I wanted to do this work,” explains Werlin, base manager and long-time flight nurse for Flight for Life® Colorado. “I still keep in touch with patients, some of whom were literally seconds from dying and are now living a full life because of our care. It’s an amazing service that is so much bigger than me. I’m proud to be a part of it.”
In addition to other state-of-the-art capabilities, Flight for Life® Colorado is the only transport system in the region to carry whole blood on all flights. Typically, different components of blood such as red blood cells or platelets are removed and packed separately.
“Whole blood is not commonly available and requires special equipment to cool and store. But it offers tremendous clinical benefits to trauma patients leading to quicker recovery and significantly shorter ICU stays,” explains Werlin.
Flight for Life® Colorado is the only transport system in the region staffed exclusively with full-time critical care flight nurses. These nurses stay on the cutting edge of care through regular training in the system’s state-of-the-art ICU simulators. In addition, because all Flight for Life® Colorado bases are located at hospitals instead of airports, flight nurses actively care for patients in these facilities when not out on a transport.
These deeply committed nurses work with certified flight paramedics and are flown by top-notch pilots to deliver on-time, highly coordinated care. Their experience is second to none. But it’s their compassion that makes such a huge difference.
“When I first worked as a nurse in the emergency department of a small, rural hospital, it was so relieving when Flight for Life® arrived to transport patients we didn’t have the resources to care for. They were the best of the best and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Shelby Jackson, now a flight nurse for Flight for Life® Colorado. “I’m honored to work with such amazing people all focused on the needs of patients. I know I’m making a difference.”
Living the mission
Flight for Life® Colorado is a “destination neutral” service, meaning it transports to the facility that best fits the patient’s needs, regardless of affiliation. It requires no membership and offers services to anyone regardless of ability to pay.
“There is a lot of anxiety regarding healthcare costs today. But we work with patients to ensure services are never a financial hardship. It’s one way we live out our mission of extending the healing ministry of Christ,” explains Mayer. “It’s peace of mind knowing we are there if needed.”
Although Flight for Life® Colorado team members are preparing to celebrate the service’s 50th anniversary next year, they don’t rest on its history. Rather, the organization is constantly looking forward—one of the reasons it has been so respected for half a century.
“We are our proud of our past but focused on the future, constantly honing our clinical expertise and ensuring we offer the most advanced capabilities to care for our patients,” explains Mayer. “We are only as good as our last transport.”