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By Rebecca Jefferis Williamson

Photo, left:  Laura Elliott and Russell Haight.

November 3, 2019 (El Cajon) -- Laura Elliott and Russell Haight work in an emergency room. A flying one. Both are employed by Mercy Air, owned by Air Methods, an air ambulance provider that works out of El Cajon’s Gillespie Field as well as other locations.

Last July, Mercy Air aided with the transfer of patients out of a hospital rendered unstable by the 7.1 Ridgecrest earthquake.  Other events, such as wildfires, can also increase the need for air ambulances and inter-facility transfers.

This year the company is celebrating 30 years of providing service to a region that includes parts of California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Photo, right:  Lake Barrett, taken by Rebecca Jefferis-Williamson

Flying in stormy weather, landing in an intersection with power lines and rough terrain are part of the job.

“We need a 100 feet x 100 feet area to land,” said flight paramedic and base lead Elliott. “We’ve landed in intersections, cul-de-sacs, trails, even a boat launch area at Barrett Lake.”

Timely rescues are crucial in saving lives. They act as a link for survival, offering advanced trauma care to specialty care, such as stroke and cardiac specialties.

Photo, left:  pilot Brent Bass pictured flying over East County.

Mercy Air doesn’t fly just when it is sunny. 

“We can fly in rain, except in freezing rain,” said CF registered nurse Haight.  “The pilot will already know the weather conditions before they fly and the wind conditions.”

Not only are the two, along with a pilot such as Brent Bass, administering and providing emergency room care for any given medically fragile patient, they deal in life or death situations on a 24/7 hour, 365 days a year basis.

In circumstances where the patient passes, all religions are respected and included in the patient’s final moments, as well as appropriate family members briefed if possible.

“We honor religious beliefs,” said Haight. “This is their moment, I’m 100% present for this conversation.” Those beliefs can include Protestant, Muslim, Judaism, Catholic, Wiccan and more.

The helicopter has medical apparatus, medicines, a gurney plus more.

“We have everything you would expect to see in a typical care unit,” said Haight. Even items to accommodate “any age, and all we know is the gender and kilos they weigh, when we get the call,” said Haight. 

Pilot Brent Bass air-lifted a first responder out of a wildfire area. But not all calls involve going near fire lines. And not all babies born in cars are delivered by law enforcement.

“If someone has a baby on the side of the road – we can take care of them,” said Haight. “We provide airway management for all ages – newborns to the elderly.”

“Last time we delivered a baby in a car was in Chula Vista,” said Elliott. “At a high school. Usually we are overhead before they are ready for us.”

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) is adhered to by the staff even in the air.

“We are very caring about people’s confidentiality,” said Haight. “So, we don’t share any photos.”

Mercy Air, established in 1989, merged with other programs such as Life Flight-San Diego; they have expanded to a fleet of 23 rotor wing and one fixed wing operation. Additionally, they used to be a membership run operation but have switched to a patient advocacy department.  The advocacy department provides patients with support and resources during the post-transport insurance billing process.

According to staff, Mercy Air is the only air ambulance provider in Southern California equipped and trained to independently transport patients on the Intra-Aortic Balloon Pump (IABP).

They coordinate with law enforcement and work with hospitals on scene calls and inter-facility transfers, saving countless lives.


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