Sunday, February 04, 2007

CALSTAR, short for California Shock/Trauma Air Rescue, newest base is in Vacaville, with offices located on the second floor of the Nut Tree airport.

Saving lives from the sky
Crew makes crucial missions from air
By Jennifer Gentile/Staff Writer
Article Launched:02/04/2007 07:27:03 AM PST
They are a common sight in the skies over Solano County, and most residents hope they will never need them.

When minutes mean the difference between life and death, it is likely that a helicopter, rather than a traditional ambulance, will transport a patient to the hospital. In Solano County, and throughout much of California, it is also likely that an air transport will come from the CALSTAR fleet.

CALSTAR, short for California Shock/Trauma Air Rescue, dispatches air ambulances out of eight bases. The newest base is in Vacaville, with offices located on the second floor of the Nut Tree airport.

The Vacaville Chamber of Commerce welcomed CALSTAR to its ranks with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, which was attended by County Supervisor Mike Reagan, as well as Calstar and chamber staff.

"It is great to have them here, no question," said Chamber President and CEO Gary Tatum.

Before CALSTAR established a base in Vacaville, no air ambulance service operated out of Solano County for two years. Each Calstar base - others being in Concord, Gilroy, Auburn, Ukiah, Salinas, McClellan, Santa Maria and south Lake Tahoe. Each station serves a 150-mile radius.

Since its inception in 1983, CALSTAR has completed 30,000 transports, according to a company profile. Its fleet includes 13 helicopters, as well as two Cessna 421 airplanes.

The helicopters, particularly, said pilot Jesper Laursen, can be a challenge to fly. The long-time pilot described this type of aircraft as "dynamically unstable."

"It can be like trying to balance yourself on top of a beach ball, flying this thing," Laursen said with a smile. He and Fay said night vision equipment, mounted to the helmet, was introduced recently and is one of the biggest safety advances the industry has seen in a long time.

As any CALSTAR nurse or pilot will acknowledge, their job can be a waiting game. The morning of Jan. 31 passed with a crew at the ready but no calls to speak of, for example.

"It's moments of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror," quipped flight nurse Michelle Starbuck, who was on call in Vacaville Wednesday with fellow nurse Rich Ikerd and Laursen. "Someone's life depends on you making the right decision."

Each CALSTAR helicopter has a pilot on board with at least 3,000 flight hours, as well as two registered trauma nurses. Program Manager Ross Fay said no position is more important than the other.

"Our safety motto is three to say 'go', one to say 'no,' " Fay said, explaining that if one of the crew members is uncomfortable with an aspect of the flight, it is rethought or aborted.

The crew added that with others' lives and their own at stake, getting along is not ideal but essential. Laursen said, "There's got to be a mutual respect and understanding."

Starbuck added, "We succeed as a team or we fail as a team."

For several reasons, Laursen said, duty on a flying ambulance is not for everyone. The pilot and two nurses said it is a rewarding but very demanding career.

"This is not a glamour job," Starbuck said. "Especially at 2 in the morning when there's an accident on Highway 12 and there's utter chaos."

With every critical patient, CALSTAR crews are charged with making a transport within the "golden hour," the period when getting to a surgical team can mean the difference between life and death. According to CALSTAR, there is no chance of meeting this time frame in some parts of the state without air transport.

"Everything we're taught to do, we can do in an aircraft on the way to the hospital," Starbuck said of CALSTAR nurses. "Our goal is to take a little bit of the emergency room to them."

The most disturbing calls, the three crew members agreed, involve children, and the worst of these calls involve children who have been beaten or abused. With any challenging call, Starbuck said she enjoys when the patients come back to tell the crew how they are doing.

Ikerd added, "We don't do it for the thanks, but it is nice when it happens."

Another point the crew agreed on is that they enjoy their careers, in spite of the challenges. They perceive each new, unpredictable day as an opportunity.

"One of the things I like about it is that it's such a learning environment," Ikerd said. "There are not a lot of careers where you could be doing it for 10 to 15 years and still learning new things."

Proving that the crew's world can change in a minute, an uneventful Wednesday morning gave way to an eventful afternoon, when a helicopter was dispatched to help a fall victim.

Jennifer Gentile can be reached at

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