Doug MacTavish

Deep in the rugged mountains of northern B.C., two hunters left their riverside camp in pursuit of stone sheep. One would soon become the focus of the longest helicopter mission ever flown by STARS.

Doug MacTavish and a friend first drove 11 hours and then boated five hours up a river before making camp in the Stikine Region at the northern edge of the province.

Neither could have predicted a major heart attack would derail everything.

It started with a burning sensation in his chest as MacTavish began an up-mountain hike with his hunting partner toward sheep they’d spotted the day before.

“We got to one point where it was really steep,” said MacTavish. “And it got worse, and it got worse, and then it was like I couldn’t breathe.”

As MacTavish fell behind, his friend lost sight of him. He blacked out twice and partially tumbled down the mountain before managing to turn back. His friend eventually found him at the boat, and they abandoned the hunt to return to camp. MacTavish didn’t know he was having a heart attack, but he knew he needed medical help.

They had an InReach, a satellite-connected device with two-way texting and an SOS trigger. After messaging friends at home, they hit the SOS button, but the responding call centre couldn’t find anyone to respond to such a remote location at night.

“They wanted me to stay until the morning,” said MacTavish, doubtful he would have made it that long. “And then some friends from home just said, ‘Why don’t we try STARS?’”

STARS had not yet been a consideration since our nearest base was in Grande Prairie, Alberta, almost 700 km away. But the friend at home had remembered an employer’s emergency response plan and its direct line to STARS Vigilant, the STARS Emergency Link Centre’s industry call service.

Hope emerged as the emergency communications specialist answering the call to STARS informed our Grande Prairie base of the need. Since weather was cooperating and STARS pilots are certified to fly in darkness with night-vision goggles, captain Mike Allard and co-captain Mark Vansickle began looking at maps and calculating fuel.

They determined they could do it with three fuel stops, including one in Watson Lake, Yukon. So, with the agreement of STARS transport physician Shona MacLachlan, a STARS helicopter launched, carrying flight nurse David Vultaggio and flight paramedic Brent McDonald.

“There was nobody else that was able to go at that time,” said McDonald. “It was six hours until daylight, until anybody else could have headed that way. And they would have been basic care. They wouldn’t have been doing any kind of advanced medical treatment. It would be just to pull him out of there. So, for him to get any legitimate care, it would have been a very long wait. So we headed out for a very long night.”

It would be four hours before their dark aerial view revealed the lights from MacTavish’s camp on the edge of the Turnagain River. A riverside sandbar was enough for the helicopter to land.

They stepped into MacTavish’s wall tent, and the relief was palpable.

“They were awesome,” MacTavish smiled. “Within five minutes they knew exactly what was going on and told me to grab what I needed. We were getting out of there.”

An ECG (electrocardiogram) confirmed suspicions that MacTavish was having a heart attack.

Vultaggio noted, “At that point, we knew that we had made the right decision.”

The return trip was more than five hours with two fuel stops, but eventually they landed in Grande Prairie, where an airplane from Alberta Health Services took MacTavish to a catheterization laboratory in Edmonton.

When the paperwork was completed, the stats showed: 2,408 litres of fuel, 1,763 kilometres flown, and 8.2 hours of flight.

“It is a crazy long trip,” said aviation base manager Thierry Breuls de Tiecken. “I mean, that was like 950-plus nautical miles, the equivalent of a Calgary-to-Los Angeles flight. It’s an incredible feat that they managed to realize that night.”

McDonald said it was an example of our ‘critical care, anywhere’ ethos.

“We were able to go where nobody else was able to go,” he said, “in the mountains, on the side of a river, to give great care and to get him to where he needed to be as quickly as we could.

“We don’t have boundaries with what we do. We’re always trying to push the limit and we’re always trying to do the best for our patients.”

Vultaggio smiled when asked about being part of the longest-ever helicopter mission flown by STARS.

“It’s pretty cool to be part of an exceptional mission like that,” he said. “And I’m just glad it all worked out for Doug in the end.”

MacTavish was happy to tell his story.

“Without them I wouldn’t be here,” he said.


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