Life Link III: Adrenaline-filled ride
As I was interviewing Bob Rhiel earlier this year as he was leaving the Pierce County Sheriff's Department after 24 years, he first made an unexpected offer.
He told me that when the time comes, let him know, and I could do a ride-along with Life Link III.
Rhiel was leaving the sheriff's department to work full-time with Life Link III, a company specializing in ground and air medical transportation. He would become the flight supervisor for its Rice Lake location.
I initially thought he was joking, but he wasn't.
So, after setting the date, I wondered what I was getting myself into. The biggest concern I had was the air portion of this equation. I have ridden in an airplane three times in my life and, when there's been turbulence, things haven't gone well for me.
Rhiel said, we'll be riding in a helicopter, not an airplane, so there's a difference between the two. Second, LifeLink helicopters will fly at about 750-1,000 feet, while an airplane is around 3,000. He also added, the takeoffs and landings in a helicopter are traditionally smoother than an airplane.
After those reassurances, I said, why not, and made the trip to Rice Lake on Sept. 27.
When I get there, Rhiel introduces me to the rest of the crew for the day. Chris Kruse will be our pilot. Kruse has a Pierce County connection, as he initially grew up in Ellsworth before moving away. Besides being a pilot, Kruse is also the Dunn County Medical Examiner. The other member is Stacy Brewers, Rhiel's boss and director of flight operations (Rice Lake, New Richmond, St. Cloud, Minn., Eden Prairie, Minn., and Hutchinson, Minn.).
After showing me around the hangar, if there are no patients, and depending on the clouds, I find out the initial plans call for maybe flying to Duluth/Superior.
Rhiel then shows me what to do entering and departing the helicopter, along with where I'll be sitting while we're in the air.
Shortly after that, Rhiel gets a page, saying LifeLink is needed at the Our Lady of Victory Hospital in Stanley. And just like that, we're off.
I'm sitting in the back of the helicopter, across from Rhiel and Brewers, who are discussing how to treat the patient, a pediatric, upon our arrival. Two things are noticeable: the confidence they exhibit in what they're doing and that all this will occur in the size of a sardine can.
"That comes from training," Rhiel said. "We've got training on-going all the time."
When we land in Stanley, I try to help out when I can and yet stay out of the way while Brewers and Rhiel do their jobs. The decision is made by the doctors at Stanley to transfer the patient to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield. We load the patient on the helicopter and we're off again.
Throughout the flight, Rhiel and Brewers monitor the patient's heart rate, blood pressure very closely, along with trying to keep the patient as stable as possible.
"Everything is very well choreographed," Brewers explained. "I call it nursing in a closet."
The pair stated situations have arisen more than once in the air, but as Brewers said, you just adjust.
"The challenge is one of the best parts of this job," she said.
No challenges resulted in this case as, we arrive safely in Marshfield. After the PICU staff asks Brewers and Rhiel what they've done in treating the patient, they thank the pair for their work and just like that we're on our way to Rice Lake.
On our ride to base, Brewers and Rhiel ask me what I thought. I tell them I got an adrenaline rush and I hardly did anything.
Back at base
When Rhiel started his law enforcement career, he also started his EMT training. He started out with the Plum City/Maiden Rock/Stockholm Ambulance in 1983 and joined the Ellsworth Ambulance Service four years later, for which he is still a member.
"Getting the self-satisfaction of helping people is the big thing," he said. "Having the interaction with the parents today and telling them their kid will be going to a major treatment facility and seeing their relief."
Rhiel signed on with LifeLink in 2000 and worked out of their New Richmond location for the last eight years--first on the ground crew, then air--before being promoted earlier this year.
"Bob's a dedicated and talented paramedic," Brewers said. "He's very dedicated to his employees, patients and the community."
For his efforts, Rhiel was named Wisconsin Paramedic of the Year by the Professional Ambulance Association of Wisconsin in 2007.
After being around them for one day, the benefits of Life Link are obvious. By car, Stanley to Marshfield takes about an hour. Our flight lasted about 20 minutes.
"We're able to provide rapid care treatment," Rhiel said. "We have no stop signs and no road blocks."
For those interested in this line of work, Rhiel advises "they should stay with it and don't give up on it. It's always something different. It's never the same." He said what he said because he estimated there are about only 150 helicopter EMTs in the State of Wisconsin.
And Rhiel is happy to be one of them.
"The job switch has gone better than expected," he said. "It's a good aircraft, good people to work for and good pilots. I'm so glad I made the change."