Care in the Air: Life Link helicopter provides life-saving service

The Life Link III helicopter looks smaller up close than it does from the ground. But even in a limited space, it’s equipped like an ICU room that can fly.

"This has everything from EKG leads to defib pads," Flight Paramedic Patrick Fitzsimmons gave a rundown of some of the equipment they carry. "If you need it, we got it."

When a call comes in, Fitzsimmons might be on a crew that responds. Shelbi Schnichels would pilot the helicopter, and Marin Peterson works with him as a flight nurse.

"It’s nice because we both have different skill set," Fitzsimmons said. "Whereas I kind of come from maybe the ambulance side of things, whereas she comes from the ICUs and ERs and stuff like that."

Peterson said a helicopter is considered for emergencies that need quick attention and that might be far away.

"A lot of it’s time-sensitive things, so heart attacks, strokes, traumas. Those are kind of our primary," she said.

The Life Link III can cut the amount of time it takes to transport a patient by two-thirds. For example, a three-hour ambulance ride from International Falls only takes one hour in the helicopter.

"Especially in a region like this, a lot of it is very rural. So access to ambulances and hospitals can sometimes be difficult," Schnichels said.

The crew flies from the base at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth to International Falls, Grand Marais, northern Wisconsin, and even Ironwood, Mich.

About 75% of their trips are transports from one medical facility to another that might have a specialty a patient needs. The other 25% of calls are responding to a scene like an ATV crash. Schnichels said they don’t need a lot of room to land on a scene. She said a field that’s about 60×100 feet is plenty.

It’s a serious job, and when they have a patient, they don’t have time to enjoy the view. But the perspective is a perk.

"It beats looking out the back of an ambulance, that’s for sure," Fitzsimmons said.

And it may provide some comfort to patients, even on their worst day.

"It’s a very stimulating environment," Fitzsimmons said. "So the more that you can kind of talk to them and be like, ‘Hey, just try and look out the window,’ you know, even that little stuff helps."

The three agree: We should all feel safer knowing a medical helicopter is a quick flight away.

"We just want to help our community," Peterson said. "And we are definitely here to help."

With Essentia’s Vision Northland project, eventually, a new helipad will be built to make transfers into the hospital even faster.