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It's My Job: Air medic takes emergency care to skies

Kristen Okeson works as a AirMed paramedic for Sanford Health in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Fargo - When a patient needs to be moved from one hospital to another or if there is a serious accident with injuries, air medics like Kristen Okeson are the ones who help care for patients in the air.

Okeson, 30, a Detroit Lakes, Minn., resident, is an air paramedic for Sanford Health’s AirMed division and works out of Sanford’s air ambulance hangar at Hector International Airport.

Okeson usually flies in a helicopter and a small airplane three days a week during a 12-hour shift.

Sanford Health has several air ambulances located at hospitals throughout the state.

There are certain added risks to flying air ambulances, such as the weather; the helicopter cannot fly if temperatures, with wind chill, drop to 35 below.

The company’s policy when it comes to air ambulances is “three to go, one to say no,” Okeson said. If one member of the crew feels unsafe flying in a certain condition, they can cancel the flight.

How did you become an air medic?

I worked ground EMS since 2007, I worked for Tri-State Ambulance (La Crosse, Wis.) and also for St. Mary’s EMS in Detroit Lakes.

A position opened up here, and I was like, “that would be fun.” I had a couple co-workers leave Detroit Lakes and come up here, as well, so they told me about the opening and here I am.

What are the key differences between working in an air ambulance compared with working in a ground ambulance?

The calls you go on are generally different. You’re not generally dealing with the tummy aches, the headaches, you’re dealing with more critical patients. Most of our patients come from a receiving facility, so they’ve already been worked up prior to us getting there. We do scene flights, as well, but they’re not as common.

We do critical care aspects so we can take care of patients more like a hospital setting rather than just an EMS or ambulance setting.

What are some of the challenges of flying in an air ambulance?

When you look at the big picture (the biggest challenge), there’s just two of us working on this patient, and when you’re in a hospital setting, you kind of have unlimited resources to take care of the patient, and we do it with just the two of us, so generally, we are very busy, but everyone who works here is absolutely amazing and works as a team exceptionally well.

How do you prepare a family for their ride in an air ambulance?

We generally don’t take family members in the helicopter just for safety reasons, but we do take family members quite often in the plane.

We try to answer all of their questions before we take off. We also prep them for what it’s going to be like, what their role is in the helicopter or the plane, and just let them know that we’re there to do our job, and that’s our primary goal.

A lot of times, these people are really sick, so we have to inform them that if something bad does happen to stay seated and to be quiet and to let us do our job.

Did you ever see yourself flying on a daily basis?

No, never. It’s amazing, though, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else at this point, I absolutely love it. On the way to the call in the helicopter, the paramedic gets to ride up front, and we learn a certain amount of what the buttons do and help navigate and help the pilot out.