liFeeling safer with medical helicopter around

During my flight, I got to see sights like this, such as the under-construction Sanford Health Clinic, front, and St. Joseph’s Hospital, back.

Toward the end of August and into early September, I will take a few days off and spend what I can only presume will be some long days at my family’s farm helping my dad and brother harvest what we hope is an above-average spring wheat and durum crop.

As safe as farmers try to be at any time of year, harvest can get hectic and mishaps have been known to happen.

I remember one year where an accidental touch of a combine’s throttle nearly caused the machine to run over my brother, who was working underneath it. Yes, safety says we should have turned the combine off before working on it. As most farmers will attest, that is a safety rule that typically doesn’t get followed — especially when the crop is ready in the field and storm clouds loom on the horizon somewhere in Montana.

If an accident were to happen on the farm this harvest, I am confident the affected person will be just fine. That’s because I now know just how fast medical help can reach us.

On Wednesday morning, I was given the opportunity to take a flight on the Spirit Lifeline helicopter with Pilot Robert Fratti, a National Guard veteran from Boise, Idaho, and flight nurse/paramedic Harley Chapman, a 6-foot-8 South Carolinan who somehow fit just fine in our tight quarters.

The chopper, if you don’t know, is the new yellow and black air ambulance seen taking off every once in a while from the helipad at the construction site of the new St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center.

Though the hospital won’t be ready to open until sometime in 2014, the air ambulance is already spinning its rotors and saving lives.

As we lifted off for my first ride ever in a chopper — I’ve flown in more airplanes than I can count, but never before in a helicopter — I was surprised how at ease I felt. Though we were more than 900 feet above ground at times, and only a door and a seatbelt separated me from falling out of the sky, I loved where I was at.

Perhaps there is still a little leftover sixth-grade version of me who dreamed of being a pilot long before learning I wasn’t that great at math, nor did I have the physique for the job.

After Fratti strapped on his white helmet with a Boise State football sticker on the side and making sure we were all flight ready — safety is the name of the game, he said — he asked me if I there was anywhere in particular I wanted to go.

Aerial view of the farm.

I thought about the farm. I knew it would give me a frame of reference as to just how fast Spirit Lifeline can get to someone in need of help. The farm is about 32 miles southeast of Dickinson, 12 miles away from New England and 17 miles from Regent.

It would, at best, take a ground ambulance 20 minutes to reach it. And that’s only if the all-volunteer crews from New England or Regent happened to be around the ambulance at the time of the call.

The Spirit Lifeline chopper reached the farm in 10 minutes — and we didn’t exactly take the direct route. A little cloud cover forced Fratti to make sure the ceiling was where he wanted it before truly cranking up the rotor to around 140 knots. Fratti said had it been a real emergency, he would likely have received GPS coordinates from the 911 call and could have reached the farm about 1 or 2 minutes sooner.

Considering it takes about 10 minutes for the Spirit Lifeline crew to receive a call, get loaded up and off the ground, I like my odds if I am ever involved in an accident and they have to respond.

Oil and agriculture — two industries with inherent dangers — set the tone for southwest North Dakota’s economy.

Whether you’re a rig hand or a rancher, you’re likely doing your job many miles from the nearest hospital or physician. That makes Spirit Lifeline and the other medical helicopters now serving western North Dakota a Godsend.

It didn’t dawn on me how heroic of a job these guys have until about 6 hours after my 36-minute flight ended. They get to fly in helicopters and help save lives. How cool is that?
If you see the Spirit Lifeline crew around, shake their hands and let them know you appreciate having them around.

Who knows? They could save your life one day.

Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at or tweet him at monkebusiness.

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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