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75 Years of Saskatchewan Air Ambulance: A Nurse and Pilot’s Perspectives

Saskatchewan Air Ambulance is celebrating 75 years. The emergency response service flies people all around and even outside of the province during times when they need it most. As part of an ongoing series to celebrate this crucial operation, Our Stories is featuring Air Ambulance nurse Stan Wiebe and pilot Dan Knisley. They talk about the challenges of the work they do, inspiring moments and the unique perspective they bring to Saskatchewan Air Ambulance. Read their stories below.

Stan Wiebe

My primary focus as a nurse has always been to provide care: medical, emotional and, at times, spiritual. This approach has been at the forefront of my 34 years as a nurse. When we are dispatched, we are entering into an individual’s and family’s time of desperate need. I started with Saskatchewan Air Ambulance (SAA) part-time in 1997, continuing to work in ICU and ER as well. In 2000 I took a full-time position.

One memory that I’ll never forget started on one of those typical Saskatchewan sunny summer days. We got a call to respond to a woman injured in a motor vehicle crash in a remote part of the province. The nearest airport was a significant drive from the health clinic that was calling for the transfer. Because this patient was badly bleeding from her injuries, we decided to have her brought to the airport. We quickly obtained two units of blood, and flew to meet the patient at the airport. She was very unstable, fluctuating through levels of consciousness and profusely bleeding from her injuries causing her blood pressure to waver.

Stan Wiebe, nurse with Saskatchewan Air Ambulance
Stan Wiebe, nurse with Saskatchewan Air Ambulance

Her husband met us at the airport. He wanted to be on that flight. I had a brief conversation with him about the seriousness of his wife’s injuries and about him being able to maintain composure in the aircraft should the worst happen. He said he would be calm; he just wanted to be with her.

As it turned out, the husband, during this awful moment, was able to assist in our providing care for his wife inside the aircraft, simply by holding things for us. We were able to get her to the tertiary care site where she underwent further surgical intervention to stabilize her injuries.

A few months later, my manager contacted me and said that I would be receiving a visit. It was the woman. She had made a complete recovery, and she and her husband wanted to personally thank us for our role in her survival. Words don’t express the joy that I felt seeing the result of all efforts throughout the health-care process. We often don’t see the end results, so this was very special.

Our highly trained critical care nurse and paramedic team at SAA approach every situation with compassion. We are called to intervene quickly and precisely for patients who have a complex, life-threatening medical crisis. This often means initiating life-saving measures, including medications to support the heart and blood pressure, supporting their breathing by using mechanical ventilation and oxygen, giving blood products and IV fluids and often medications for pain control and sedation. But there are so many other pieces to the process.

Stan Wiebe, in plane demonstrating equipment
Stan Wiebe, in plane demonstrating equipment

There are often family members who are in emotional crisis as well. They need reassurance, comfort and support. The SAA team is almost always able to bring one family member back to the tertiary care centre. I also find it is vital to gain an element of trust with the family left behind prior to leaving the referring facility. Then there are also the environmental aspects of caring for a critically sick or injured patient – from plus 30 or minus 30 degree temperatures, wind, rain, snow and even insects. These all create challenges as we transition patients from a road ambulance into an aircraft. And of course, the physiological effects of flying a critically sick patient need to be considered as well.

I have always admired the role that paramedics play in the initial stages of medical care. To be able to work alongside these highly skilled practitioners is an honour.

Dan Knisley

I began my career as a pilot with the Government of Saskatchewan in 1998. At present, I hold the title of Chief Pilot, and I am tasked with maintaining the professional standards of all of the pilots who are employed at Saskatchewan Air Ambulance. I, along with other training staff, oversee, develop and deliver all of the training programs that are required in Canadian air law for our service.

In this field of work, I and others directly affect lives every day. I can think of several instances where I have been a part of something much bigger than flying the aircraft.

Dan Knisley, pilot with Saskatchewan Air Ambulance
Dan Knisley, pilot with Saskatchewan Air Ambulance

I will never forget returning a particular palliative grandmother to be with her family before passing. It’s a difficult moment, but families need that precious time. It was a beautiful summer day while flying to Calgary. We landed, and the road ambulance pulled up to the aircraft. I just recall the moment the door was opened to the ambulance – the reality of this person’s life struck me.

This was a young grandmother, something that is always hard to reconcile. A frail, young woman, barely breathing, with sunken eyes, simply wanting to be with her kids and husband one last time. I wasn’t quite prepared. These moments are never easy, but each time I have done this, I know I have made a difference to a family during their greatest time of need, and it makes me grateful for what I have in my personal life.

Other days, we’re transporting an expectant mother. We don’t really have a lot of control over nature, so a mom in labour usually means help is quickly needed. When we’re involved, it typically means that for the baby’s best outcome, the birth needs to occur in a different medical facility than the one nearest to where the mom is located.

Dan Knisley, with mask in pilot chair
Dan Knisley, with mask in pilot chair

From very young, I was always interested in aviation and spaceflight. As a pilot, I have always liked the spontaneity of this type of flying with Air Ambulance. One day you can be flying in northern Saskatchewan and the next into Vancouver, B.C. Two days are rarely the same, and the delivery of this program asks for mental preparedness, critical thinking and practised skill. In my present role I do not fly as much, but I use my past experience to help guide decision-making for effective and efficient delivery of the service. I like what I do because I, along with my colleagues, make a difference in people’s lives and help them when they need it the most.

It takes the combined efforts of many to deliver the Air Ambulance service to the residents of Saskatchewan. I am just a small piece of the program, but very privileged to be surrounded by capable and dedicated colleagues that make this service a success!

All photography and video done for this project followed COVID-19 safety procedures. Minimal staff were present during filming and all wore masks whenever possible. Maskless photos and videos were taken in a large, well-ventilated space or at a distance with telephoto lenses. Saskatchewan Air Ambulance also does regular sanitation before and after equipment is used.

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