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Carlsbad air ambulance crew battles COVID-19 from the skies

CARLSBAD – For Ronel Sizer, the front line of the COVID-19 health crisis is thousands of feet above ground.

He’s a paramedic with Air Methods who has flown patients out of rural Carlsbad in southeast New Mexico to major hospitals in Lubbock or other nearby cities almost every day since the pandemic hit the state in March.

Paramedic with Air Methods Ronel Sizer inspects a medical helicopter before beginning his shift Dec. 23 on base at the Carlsbad Air Terminal. (Adrian Hedden/Current-Argus)

With only a small medical center in town, patients experiencing the worst of COVID-19 must be transported from the small city to a major hospital often across state lines to receive treatment in an intensive care unit.

That often means flight in either Air Methods’ helicopter which can hold patients weighing up to 200 to 250 pounds, or on a small airplane which can accommodate up to 400 pounds.

The helicopter can take patients to the closer hospitals such as in Lubbock or El Paso, but the plane has traveled as far as Denver, Phoenix, Houston and San Antonio.

Before the pandemic, the crew averaged about 40 flights per month. With COVID-19, that number grew to more than 60 flights a month, at least two per day.

Air travel high above the surface where oxygen is thinner presents a challenge for patients already struggling to breathe.

Sizer said the pandemic made oxygen supplies aboard the aircraft even more important, with patients frequently hooked up to ventilators while en route to an ICU to provide adequate air to the body and avoid hypoxia which occurs when the body has too little oxygen to property function.

“With COVID-19, we pay a lot of attention to our oxygen and ventilation,” he said. “Those patients need high oxygen levels. The last thing you want is for them to get hypoxic. It’s challenging.”

Air Methods’ Carlsbad base is a rarity in the southeast in that it boasts both a helicopter for short travel and a plane for longer trips.

Artesia’s and Hobbs’ bases have just a helicopter, while Roswell has both.

Area manager Julie Lewis said patients are being sent longer distances as hospitals are overwhelmed by the health crisis.

She said Air Methods is flying more patients out of El Paso to other hospitals than into the city near the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas as medical resources dwindled there.

Since March when the pandemic began its first major spread in New Mexico, Lewis said Air Methods transported 384 COVID-19 patients throughout the state with bases in most major areas from Las Cruces to Taos.

“The COVID patients are going farther and farther away,” she said. “We’ve been taking patients a long distance. They’re not so much running out of space. They’re running out of staff.”

Liquid oxygen allows for the longer flights, providing oxygen for up to 10 hours.

Flight nurse Kim Parker said the aircraft were well-outfitted to handle the health crisis, while the crew usually works 24-hour shifts for medical staff and 12 hours at a time for pilots.

“We treat them the same way we treat any patient that has to go on a ventilator,” she said. “We just need more pressure for the oxygen. We have the equipment we need.”

The advantage of using the helicopter allows patients to be landed at a helipad usually on the roof of hospitals.

Transports via plane must disembark at a nearby airport and are then driven to a hospital by ambulance.

In high winds and storms, the helicopter can be grounded and use of the plane becomes necessary.

Helicopter pilot Marnie Hill said the constantly changing weather in the desert region of southern New Mexico can present a challenge, but her team is dedicated to saving lives during the health crisis.

Before coming to Air Methods, Hill flew helicopter tours in the Grand Canyon, but she said her focus was unchanged while in the pilot’s chair.

“People are suffering. It’s our job to get them the best care possible,” she said. “Sometimes the weather gets in the way, but we do the best we can for them. It’s our job. We put ourselves at risk. It’s as controlled a risk as we can make it.

“These are human beings, so we need to make sure they get home to their loved ones, and that I bring my crew back to their families as well.”

Pat Allis who pilots the plane said since the pandemic hit, he’s seen small towns like Carlsbad suffering more with each month of the crisis.

“You pick little towns like this and you become part of the community,” he said. “You feel for this place. You see the weakest in the community taken out.”

About 80% of Air Methods staff members were infected with COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic, meaning paramedics and pilots from other states had to be brought in to cover until the local crew members tested negative.

Combined with the stress of a potential infection, Allis said the workload has increased dramatically.

Sleep and a good meal are rare while the crew is working.

“It’s busy. You’re guaranteed to fly every day,” he said. “Eating and sleeping is a challenge. We get in early and we stay late.”

But that’s just part of the job for Ronel Sizer, who said a 35 year career as a paramedic meant learning to function with little rest or sustenance as with the rest of the crew who mostly boast decades in the profession before of taking to the skies.

“My body is used to not having much sleep,” he said. “You can train your body to just get up and go. It’s all about knowing what you limit is. The stakes are very high, the standards are very high, and we’re used to it.”

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