February 9, 2024 | Operations, Allies, Our Patients, Our Team

Working together to save lives in Carberry, Manitoba

STARS Air Medical Crew work with local EMS to ready a patient from the staging point to a trauma centre.

STARS joins partners in unprecedented response to Manitoba highway tragedy

The morning of June 15 began like most others at the STARS Winnipeg base. The day crew started their shift at 7 a.m. and went through their daily checks to ensure they and their aircraft were ready for the next mission. Like many other days at the base, several off-duty crew members were also on hand taking part in the ongoing training that STARS regularly undertakes to keep their skills as sharp as possible.

Shortly before noon, however, a series of events would unfold that ensured that what started out as an average day would turn out to be one of the largest coordinated responses in STARS’ history.

At approximately 11:35 a.m., a semi-truck collided with a passenger bus on a busy stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway near Carberry, Manitoba, roughly 170 kilometres west of Winnipeg. Given the amount of traffic that regularly travels through the area, local RCMP and first responders were notified almost immediately and were the first to arrive on scene.

Minutes after the collision occurred, a 911 operator alerted Manitoba’s centralized dispatch centre — the Medical Transportation Coordination Centre (MTCC) — of the event. The MTCC immediately called STARS, alerting them of a potentially major event. This resulted in an automatic launch of STAR-7, the on-duty aircraft and flight crew in Winnipeg. They were in the air less than 12 minutes after the collision took place.

At the same time, numerous ground ambulances from the southwest region were also enroute to the scene.

Dr. Doug Martin, STARS medical director for Manitoba and a transport physician, was working that morning and was quickly pressed into action to help deploy and direct the aircraft and medical crew that would be required to transport a large number of patients.

Dr. Martin was one of four transport physicians on duty with STARS that morning. There was also a lead on-call transport physician and a second on-call transport physician overseeing STARS medical crew on the fixed-wing aircraft.

A fourth doctor, a senior resident in emergency medicine completing his very last month of training, was also with STARS that morning on an elective rotation.

“We very quickly determined that I was going to stay back and help coordinate the transport,” explained Dr. Martin. The lead on-call transport physician and the senior resident doctor at the STARS base would deploy to the scene by air, while the second on-duty transport physician would handle any medical transport calls coming from elsewhere in the province.

Portraits of STARS Medical Director, Manitoba Dr. Doug Martin and STARS Provincial Director, Manitoba Operations, Grant Therrien

(At left) Dr. Doug Martin, STARS Medical Director, Manitoba. One of the transport physicians on duty, Dr. Martin was stationed at the VECTRS centre, working with Shared Health to coordinate the critical care transports. (At right) Grant Therrien, STARS Provincial Director, Manitoba Operations. Grant is also an active STARS flight paramedic and was stationed at the Brandon Airport as on-site transport coordinator.

Dr. Martin then jumped in his car and drove to the nearby Virtual Emergency Care and Transport Resource Service (VECTRS) operations centre. VECTRS is Manitoba Shared Health’s centralized and coordinated source for clinical guidance and patient transport support. At VECTRS, Dr. Martin joined Dr. Rob Grierson, Shared Health’s chief medical officer for Emergency Response Services, to help coordinate the inter-facility transport response to the accident.

Initial triage reports indicated that 10 patients were in either serious or critical condition. From Carberry, the nearest regional hospitals were in Brandon or Portage la Prairie. Most patients, however, were in a condition that required them to be taken to Manitoba’s major trauma centre — Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. It became clear very quickly that more aircraft and more medical crews were needed to transport those patients.

With STAR-7 already dispatched from Winnipeg, Dr. Martin contacted the STARS Emergency Link Centre to connect with the STARS team in Regina, the next closest base. STAR-9 was then dispatched out of Regina and lifted off toward Manitoba shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, back at the STARS Winnipeg base, efforts were underway to deploy additional medical crew via fixed wing aircraft. Grant Therrien, STARS provincial director, Manitoba operations, was leading these efforts.

“The STAR-7 crew had just been dispatched and our on-duty fixed-wing medical crew were at the ready,” explained Therrien. “We also had a clinical simulation happening at the base that day, so we had a number of additional air medical crew available. Dr. Martin phoned me and explained the situation and asked if we could not only send the on-duty crew, but if we could put together an additional team to travel on a second fixed-wing aircraft.”

“It was truly all hands-on deck, whoever could help, was assigned to help.”
— Grant Therrien, STARS Provincial Director, Manitoba operations

Therrien’s response to the request was simple and clear.

“Absolutely, we will.”

With the on-duty fixed-wing crew on their way in the first aircraft, Therrien then summoned all the off-duty medical crew members who were at the base and told them to get their flight suits on and start packing up additional supplies. Their clinical simulation day was about to become a major, real-life mission.

Therrien, who also serves as a STARS flight paramedic, assembled an additional five medical crew members — including himself — to travel on the second fixed-wing aircraft. When they arrived at the hangar to load the second aircraft they learned that, because of the space taken up by the onboard stretcher, there were only enough seats for four medical attendants. Without hesitation, one of the STARS flight paramedics volunteered to be strapped to the stretcher for the flight to ensure that they could all be there to help in whatever way they could.

At the scene of the incident, STAR-7 had arrived from Winnipeg and the crew immediately began providing critical care to one of the patients. Dr. O’Leary, the physician who was also onboard STAR-7, began checking in with all other ground ambulance crews and first responders to assist with their patients.

“It was truly all hands-on deck,” said Therrien. In addition to the STARS crew, there were first responders on the scene from local EMS services across southwestern Manitoba, area fire departments, and the RCMP. “Whoever could help was assigned to help.”

“I want to acknowledge all of the first responders, including volunteer responders, ground EMS, and RCMP that were the first to arrive on scene,” added Therrien. “They arrived at a chaotic, devastating scene, and they did incredible work both prior to our arrival and in working together to care for as many people as possible.”

Before long, STAR-7 departed with the first patient from the scene to Health Sciences Centre. With the two fixed-wing aircraft enroute from Winnipeg and STAR-9 on the way from Regina, ground ambulances began transporting patients to the nearest major hospital. Most patients were transported to the Brandon Regional Health Centre, with two other patients taken by ambulance to the hospital in Portage la Prairie.

A patient is transferred from ground ambulance to a fixed-wing critical care flight at the Brandon Airport.

A patient is transferred from ground ambulance to a fixed-wing critical care flight at the staging area at the Brandon Airport.

In addition, two patients were transported by ground directly to the Brandon Airport, which would become the staging area for patient transport. There they were met by the two fixed-wing aircraft which had arrived in Brandon and were waiting to transport them immediately back to Winnipeg.

The Brandon Regional Health Centre, western Manitoba’s major health centre, had received five critically injured patients in the span of 30 minutes. To assist with this influx of critical patients, several STARS crew members who were not yet transporting patients travelled to the hospital in Brandon.

They worked alongside the Brandon medical teams in stabilizing these critical patients in preparation for onward transport to Winnipeg. They also provided a clear line of communication to both Therrien, who was coordinating the staging area at the Brandon Airport, and to the team at the VECTRS centre in Winnipeg who could then relay information to the trauma teams who were receiving patients at Health Sciences Centre.

Coordinating the transport of the remaining patients from Brandon was the next task for Drs. Martin and Grierson and their team back at the VECTRS centre. It is common for neighbouring jurisdictions to provide additional support in a major incident such as this. In addition to STAR-9 from Regina already responding, more help was required. With all the critical care transport assets in Manitoba in use, a decision was made to request additional help from Saskatchewan from which two Lifeguard fixed-wing air ambulance aircraft and crews were dispatched — including an additional STARS transport physician from Saskatoon — to the Brandon Airport.

As the aircraft from Saskatchewan began to arrive in Brandon, they were subsequently loaded with patients who had been stabilized at the Brandon hospital and departed again to transport them to Winnipeg.

Dr. Martin shared that the final transport tied to the accident came later that afternoon when STARS was dispatched for an inter-facility transfer from the hospital in Portage la Prairie. “A patient who had been initially transported by ground from the scene to Portage la Prairie had now worsened and required critical transport to Health Sciences Centre.”

And so, the crew of STAR-7, who were the first aircraft dispatched to the accident scene more than five hours earlier, launched once more to transport the last patient to the trauma centre in Winnipeg. As they returned to base early that evening, the magnitude of the day’s events was clear.

The tragic incident at Carberry was one of the largest scene responses in the history of Manitoba. As we honour and remember the lives that were lost, we recognize the efforts of so many who did everything they could to save as many lives as possible.

When all was said and done, a total of six aircraft and 20 STARS crew members travelled either to the scene or to Brandon to care for and transport critically injured patients that day. STARS was one of the many organizations who were involved in the enormous, multi-agency response to this tragedy.

A patient is transfered from a ground Ambulance to STAR-9 from Regina at the Brandon Manitoba airport

A patient is transferred from a ground ambulance to the STAR-9 helicopter (that arrived from Regina) at the Brandon, Manitoba airport.

STARS salutes the invaluable efforts of Manitoba Shared Health, the RCMP, Carberry North Cypress-Langford Fire & Rescue, Prairie Mountain EMS, Brandon Emergency Services, the Brandon Regional Health Centre, Manitoba VECTRS, the Manitoba Medical Transportation Coordination Centre, Vanguard Air, Saskatchewan Air Ambulance, and Winnipeg EMS.

We also recognize the 20 STARS crew members who were involved in our response, including seven flight paramedics, five flight nurses, four transport physicians and the four pilots who flew STAR-7 and STAR-9. These crew members have been thoroughly supported in the aftermath of this tragedy, given the difficulty of the scene and the value that STARS places on the mental health and wellbeing of our team.

“This was certainly one of the most difficult days we have experienced, not only as a medical and first responder community, but for the province as a whole,” stated Dr. Martin.

“It was one of the most challenging missions any of us will ever face, but it’s what we train for,” adds Therrien. “I’m proud that we were able to work together to save so many lives that day.”

A map showing where STARS aircraft were flown on the day of the accident. STARS Helicopter EMS responded from Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina and fixed-wing flights were flown from the staging area in Brandon to Winnipeg.

Six separate aircraft from two provinces were deployed to Carberry and Brandon support the critical care transport needs of patients. In total, 20 STARS personnel including air medical crew, pilots and transport physicians responded to the accident.

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