October 12th, 2009
10:47 AM ET

Buying time to save patients

By David S. Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

North of the Arctic Circle, the weather is unforgiving, the population is scattered and the distances are immense. At the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø, the northernmost teaching hospital in the world, doctors routinely use a helicopter ambulance and fixed-wing plane to transport the most serious cases for care – or to bring emergency care to the patient. It’s all about buying time.

During a visit Tromsø, we shadowed Dr. Mads Gilbert, who heads the Department of Emergency Medical Services at the hospital, a small city surrounded by water and mountains. He describes trauma care in this part of the world as “cold, dark, distance and dangerous.” The cold poses its own challenges, and Dr. Gilbert and the team see a lot of hypothermia from ski accidents and people who’ve fallen out of fishing boats falling into the water.

Dr. Gilbert was on call 24 hours a day all week when we were there. He is 62, a rangy man with the energy and enthusiasm of someone half his age.

“What we do with emergency medicine - be it airway breathing, chest compressions, bleeding control, treating hypothermia - is to slow or even stop the death process. So it’s really the struggle between life and death and I always feel like we’re standing on the shore with the tide coming up. We’re trying to pull people from the tide of death and onto the dry land of life,” Gilbert said with a flourish.

Hours after we arrived, his team scrambled in the middle of the night, putting on jumpsuits and helmets and climbing aboard the helicopter ambulance. The temperature was just a degree or two above freezing as the helicopter lifted off and a chilling rain soon began to fall. A young man was suffering from an uncontrollable seizure, and the local doctor wasn’t sure whether it was an allergic reaction or something more serious. The helicopter ambulance team brought the patient back to the hospital.

By sending the helicopter, Dr. Gilbert and his team were able to get the patient to the hospital an hour and a half more quickly than a traditional ambulance. When we left that night, the patient was stable and resting as he awaited further neurological exams.

Gilbert says he expects the emergency teams to make close to 900 missions this year on the two aircraft. Norway started the Statens luftambulanse (National Air Ambulance System) in 1988. The goal is to reach 90 percent of the Norwegian population within 45 minutes. The service - all of Norwegian health care for that matter –is paid for by the government, through taxes. Gilbert is an outspoken proponent of national health care. Back from a mission, Gilbert joked that he didn’t ask to see a credit card before allowing the patient on board.

Gilbert and the other doctors at the University Hospital of North Norway have become perhaps the world’s leading experts treating cases of accidental hypothermia. To see their most remarkable rescue, a woman whose body temperature had dropped to 56 degrees, tune in to “Another Day – Cheating Death” this weekend, at 8 and 11 p.m. ET, Saturday and Sunday.

Has someone you know been airlifted to a hospital? What was the experience like?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Gunter Hochreiter

    Hi !

    Here we see again, national health works. Healthcare for everybody
    Every educated compassionate country should have it. Here we are in the USA the "richest and most powerful " country but too much greed prevents this to happen. I feel disgusted. I have relatives in Europa and I know it works. Why not in the USA ???

    Regards Gunter

    October 12, 2009 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ingridhochreiter

      So, I am from Austria, Europe. And in Austria, Germany, Swizzerland France and so on, the Healthcare for everybody works! Why not in the USA? Because the rich people don't want that the others have the same healthcare. In Europe we think, all people MUST have the same Care, because healthy people can work good an like to work , so that's it. Ingrid

      September 23, 2012 at 17:40 | Report abuse |
  2. Heather

    I had to put my 1 year old daughter on a helo after an accident with a lawnmower. She is 12 years old now, and doing all the things 12 year olds do (with an attitude, of course). It is the most helpless feeling in the world having to put your trust, hopes and prayers into the hands of people you have never seen before. Then knowing that we would not be able to make or receive cell calls to the hospital because of poor coverage in the rural areas between here and there was torture. It was the longest 2 hour drive of our lives to get to the tertiary care center. We didn't know what was going to happen when she got there – we just told them they had our permission to do what ever they felt needed to be done until we got there.

    I'm now an ER nurse working in the same facility that intially treated my daughter after her injury. I regulary put patients on helocopters or get in the back of an ambulance to take them to facilities that have the specialists needed to care for them. I will never forget how I felt standing on the loading dock watching them fly my baby away. I hope that experience somehow helps me provide a little bit of comfort to families as I get ready to take their loved ones "down the road".

    October 12, 2009 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Donna Zimmermann

    When I heard this story earlier today, I was instantly reminded of Friar Lawrence in Act IV, scene i of Shakepeare's "Romeo and Juliet", as he persuaded Juliet to drink the herbal potion he had concocted to put her into a 'deathlike sleep' while he worked to resolve their dilemma for the star-crossed lovers. Theirs was not a good outcome; almost 400 years later it seems to have been a forward-thinking idea, with much better results.

    October 14, 2009 at 08:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Richard S. Hunter

    My father in law had a near death experience years ago. When I wrote his biopgraphy. titles "Where Eagles Fly". The following is a sample from the book (second half of Chapter 15) (see http://www.richardstevenhunter.com for details)

    ...The next Eagle Squadron reunion was being held in Midland, Texas in October of 2000. It was now the new millennium and Red lived to see it. That in itself was a miracle. This reunion was just like all the others. Downed shots of Scotch, as a means of respect for those who were longer on this earth was followed by Eagle Squadron business, a solo Piper performance, paying the Piper with a shot, followed by updates on family and friends. This year was a little tougher for Red. He wasn’t feeling all that great. He knew he was coming down with either a bad cold or maybe even the flu. He ended up spending most of his time resting in his room instead of mingling with the crowd. He had the chills followed by feeling all sweaty. He was glad to finally make it back home when the reunion adjourned. Once back in San Diego he became concerned when he didn’t start feeling any better. After calling his primary care physician, it was thought Red had pneumonia and was given a regimen of antibiotics, which didn’t seem to help. The next day when Red woke up, he was feeling even worse. When Red called his doctor again, he was told to go to the clinic for evaluation. After a quick examination, he was put into an ambulance and transferred over to Sharp Hospital and admitted into their Intensive Care unit. They still believed that Red was suffering from pneumonia, and at his age, it could have been dangerous.
    Doctor Mosely, a pulmonary specialist, was the one to recognize that Red was actually drowning from fluid being built up in his lungs. It took a Foley catheter and two days of passing urine to shed Red of twenty pounds worth of fluids. Of course he was hooked up to every machine known to man. There was round the clock observation; just to be sure he would not go into a downward spiral. Red’s diagnosis was Congestive Heart Failure, a condition which many times proved fatal to those in their senior years. Surviving flight training, being shot down, being taken prisoner, torturous abuse and all of the other hazards that Red danced with, he wasn’t going to allow a physical issue like this get him. No way!
    During the five days in ICU, Red only had a few memories, one of which would change his life, forever. He does remember briefly being conscious now and then, only to be followed by the blackness of drug-induced sleep. During one of these blackout times, before him appeared an apparition. It wasn’t the blinding white light everyone talks about when they experience a near-death episode. This was different. It was as if the fabric of time was torn. Within the tear, he could see the hole getting bigger and bigger. Inside the tear, there was a brightness, but it wasn’t blinding. Within the brightness there were people milling about. Some playing, others just walking to and fro. At the edge of the rift, on the right hand side, was a figure of a woman, standing with her back towards Red. She was looking at the crowd just like Red. Her frame was silhouetted so not too many details could be seen. Red did notice that her hair was long and black and she looked exactly like his mom. Red wanted to see more. It was extremely inviting and he felt that he was being drawn in closer and closer. Red was passing over into the other side. Then suddenly, he couldn’t go any further. It was as if his mother was standing guard at the doorway to heaven, preventing her son from entering. Red had unfinished business on earth and wouldn’t be allowed to enter, just yet. The next thing Red knew, he was waking up in the ICU.
    He remembered every detail of the vision. He could still feel the warmth and the love that this place was offering him and all those who passed. From that day forward, Red would never fear death again. He now knows what is on the other side and it is beautiful. God had given him the gift, so he could be at peace while he takes care of his responsibilities in the world of mortal beings. He had to take care of his wife, Chris, who was slowly giving in to the limitations of her osteoporosis and scoliosis. Together the two of them would journey into the far reaches of their senior years. Red had a lot to think about. After his five days in ICU, they ran a battery of tests including sonic ultrasound and dye injections. They couldn’t find any traces of his illness. It was as if he was never sick. God was in control and Red knew it. The aged Eagle was a miracle, Blessed by God.

    October 15, 2009 at 10:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Martin J. Breen III

    When I was approximately 12-13 years old, my parents had a swimming pool. One day I was in the pool's shallow end with an aluminum pole used to vacuum the bottom. I placed the pole next to the pump used to suck the debris and the pole started to roll down towards to deep end. Not wanting to fish the pole from the deep end I grabbed the pole just as it came in contact with the pump. Once I grabbed the pole I felt my muscles in my hand contract. This feeling continued until I was lying face up in about four to five feet of water. I remember thinking to myself how peaceful the feeling was laying on the bottom of the pool ready to die. I remember seeing the whole scene from about 20-30 feet above. Looking down I saw myself at the bottom of the pool, my house, the neighbors and I remember a child hood friend coming around the garage towards to pool. The next thing I remember is that I am coughing up water and my friend giving me CPR. Later, when my dad came home he stated the the pump was not grounded properly. I never told my parents the whole story because I knew they would not believe me.

    October 16, 2009 at 16:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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