When Richard Sugden and Paul King started Jackson Hole Air Ambulance in 1981, the closest air ambulance sat in Salt Lake City.
“It became apparent that we didn’t have any way of getting seriously ill or injured patients to Idaho Falls or Salt Lake,” former medical director Sugden said.
Sugden’s experience as a Navy flight surgeon and King’s special forces medic background fit nicely together. Sugden, who has since been inducted into the Wyoming Aviation Hall of Fame, had an airplane he could use to carry patients, and the two men trained more than 20 emergency medical technicians and some of the hospital’s intensive care unit nurses to be flight nurses. They also had friends who were commercial pilots willing to fly.
“It was pretty rewarding,” Sugden said. “We took care of a lot of sick and injured patients. We never lost a patient.”
Cardiac patients and women in premature labor were their most frequent flyers. Sugden had experience delivering babies on the ground as a family medicine doctor in the region.
Sugden remembered a particular woman who kept “thrashing” in the back of the helicopter and kicked a door so hard she dented it.
“Both of us kept thinking we might deliver in the back,” he said.
The company owned several airplanes and leased one when needed.
“They were business jets,” Sugden said. “We took the seats out and put stretchers in.”
Respirators, suction machines, stretchers, litters and IV poles filled the aircraft.
“Everything’s got to be tailored for the airplane so it fits and works in the airplane and also works with changes in altitude,” Sugden said.
So he knows how expensive bases are to operate and staff 24 hours a day.
“The other big problem was getting paid,” Sugden said. “We felt obligated to fly anyone that had a life-threatening injury or illness. We flew and worked on collecting payments later. It wasn’t successful all that often.”
Jackson Hole Air Ambulance operated for 12 years, amassing more than 1,000 flights.
“Once an air ambulance showed up in Idaho Falls and two or three more showed up in Salt Lake City, we said, ‘OK, you guys can do it now,’” Sugden said. “And they do a really good job.”
Air ambulances have since proliferated in the region. Air Idaho Rescue started in 1990 as part of Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. In 2009, Air Methods Corporation purchased the operation. Now Air Idaho Rescue operates four bases, including a fixed-wing operation in Idaho Falls and three helicopter operations in Driggs and Soda Springs, Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Montana. The Driggs, Idaho, base opened in 2015.
With the current bases “we are closer to the patients and critical-access hospitals across our area,” said Megan Smith of Air Methods.
“This way we are able to quicker pick up patients in need and transfer them to tertiary care facilities like EIRMC and others in the region,” she said.