Flight For Life Colorado is the nation's first and one of the most accomplished, air medical transport programs. It provides critical care transport with five helicopters, three ambulances and three airplanes operating within a 120-mile radius of five Colorado operations bases and. Flight For Life® transports patients across several states in the Rocky Mountain Region and assists search and rescue agencies with specialized services, including aerial search support and their Avalanche Deployment Program.
Kathleen Mayer: Flight For Life Colorado. A certified nurse, Mayer has been the Director of Flight for Life Colorado (FLC) since 1999. She spoke to Boulder Rotary Club on Friday about FLC and its history.
FLC went into service nearly 50 years ago in October of 1972. Remarkably, it was the very first civilian based helicopter program in the United States. Since it began, it has been the launch pad for over 300 similar programs around the country.
The picture at the right is of the first nurses and Dr. Boyd Bigelow, a pulmonologist from St. Anthony’s
Hospital in Denver. Dr. Bigelow recruited the nurses from the emergency room and from the pulmonology unit. Mayer said that while Dr. Bigelow was very proud of founding FLC, his real love, his real passion, was rural health care. FLC was the way to take emergency care to rural areas.
Dr. Bigelow was not the only star of the first FLC team- the nurses also went on to do amazing things as well; one went into the astronaut training program; one went into law enforcement; one went on to medical school; they all did amazing things. This is especially commendable because they faced a lot of push back about their roles in taking medicine to the streets. Mayer said the nurses were pushed out of ambulances, told to “go back to the hospitals,” and that they weren’t welcome doing emergency medicine through FLC.
The nurses even had to fight to wear white pants. At the time FLC was founded, nuns still ran a significant portion of St. Anthony and they thought the nurses should be in their hospital uniform- white dress, white hose, and white shoes. The white pants, seen in the picture, were a big compromise. Unsurprisingly, the white did not last long- Meyer said it lasted two weeks. After coming back from flights covered in mud, or dust and all the other stains that happen when treating people in the field. The nurses went on to change the color to navy blue. They also designed the new suits, and all the equipment they would carry and even the harnesses and other ways to carry the equipment.
Even the helicopter was special. You may see in the helicopter has the word “Olympic” on the tail. That’s because the owner had tricked it out for the 1976 Olympics which may have been held in Denver but ultimately the city turned it down. So the owner of the helicopter brought it to St. Anthony’s when he heard they were looking for one for their new flight medicine program.
The first mass casualty event FLC participated in was in 1976. That year, two gondolas collided and fell to the ground in Vail. FLC was able to land their planes and helicopters at the Vail airport/landing strip and transport the survivors to Denver hospitals.
The next big event they assisted with was July 31st
, 1976. It was the biggest and deadliest natural disaster in Colorado’s history- killing 144 people and millions in damages, hundreds of homes were destroyed. It happened during a very busy time- people were camping in the woods, tourists were everywhere. There was no warning.
FLC worked continuously for 19 hours during the response. There was one helicopter that had a diver tied by a rope to the helicopter skid. FLC was able to rescue 85 people by evacuating them to Estes Park. It was the only civilian organization working to rescue people during that time.
FLC spent years responding to Colorado disasters; from 48 inches of snow dumped on Denver- cutting off communities and making getting to the hospital impossible for some (including women in labor); responding to a ski lift accident at Keystone during spring break- the wheel that pulls the lift was brand new but it fractured and sent a wave through lift line sending the lift chairs first to the ground then catapulting them back into the air. Skiers were dropped to the ground and injured throughout the lift line. There was only one fatality and many injured. In April 1999, FLC responded to the school shooting at Columbine High School as a secondary responder.
On September 11th
, 2001, all flights were grounded after the plane attacks. FLC got a call from Bonifils Blood Center requesting blood to send to Manhattan. FLC was one of the only flights in that sky that day. And although the blood wasn’t ultimately used, the team was supported by air traffic all along the route.
FLC had its own tragedy on July 3rd
, 2015 when one of their helicopters crashed on a helipad in Frisco, Colorado. The pilot, Patrick Mahaney died. Two flight nurses who were critically injured survived. FLC used this tragedy as an opportunity to help future teams by lobbying to pass legislation to require all newly manufactured helicopters to have crash resistant fuel systems. FLC has updated all of their helicopters with the new systems as well.
As of today, FLC has five helicopters; one in Lakewood, one in Durango, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and one in Frisco. FLC has three airplanes- based between Durango and Denver. They have several ambulances throughout Colorado. Last year, FLC completed 6,000 transports. They work extensively with search and rescue. They have a program to lift avalanche victims out, and also to transport search dogs and dog handlers to scenes.
Meyer left enough time to answer questions and there were many! If you want to learn more about Flight for Life Colorado you can see a great 10 minute documentary by “Behind the Wings” by clicking HERE
If you missed the program about Flight for Life Colorado, you can see the whole thing by clicking HERE
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