The Golden Hour
Bonnie Clarkin remembered the brief silence before hitting the snow-covered ground, hard. She missed a corner, that same corner that snuck up on her the day before. Bonnie landed on her back, now pinned under her 500-pound sled about 45 feet from the snowmobile trail. The machine’s throttle became lodged in the snow, creating a deafening roar from the engine as the sled’s spinning track tore away at her clothing and skin. “I tried to push the sled off with my right arm, but could not reach over the spinning track to get to the bumper. All I could think was, ‘how do I get myself out of this?’”
A LifeFlight helicopter arrived first to the scene after Bonnie’s friends found her, pulled the sled away, and called 911. Pilot Alan West set the aircraft down in a clearing a few hundred yards away from Bonnie, just long enough to let the crew out, then found a more suitable place to land. That very spot, located just yards away from Bonnie that allowed the LifeFlight crew to save her life, would not exist without JR Roebuck.
Jonathan “JR” Roebuck is a long-time communication specialist at MedComm, a communications center and EMHS joint venture company.. JR is part of a team in Bangor that works with LifeFlight of Maine and various other emergency medical, police, fire, warden, and forestry services to coordinate getting people the help they need in critical situations.
JR answered the call that day Bonnie was fighting for her life. He knows in this business, the outcome for the injured relies heavily on getting help to them within the “golden hour”—a very short window in trauma situations in which a patient needs to receive medical attention. For a LifeFlight helicopter to reach you within this hour, JR explained, “It needs a landing zone, which is 100 feet by 100 feet on a surface that is firm, flat, and free of obstacles.”
While the aircraft’s footprint is about the size of a minivan, its rotor disk is approximately 40 feet, tip-to-tip, and can generate hurricane-force winds. Maine’s extensive shoreline, hundreds of coastal islands, dense forests, mountains, and extreme temperatures, make finding these landing zones and getting help to the injured complex, to say the least. It was back in 2005 when JR was working on another difficult rescue mission in which the helicopter couldn’t get close enough to the patient that a lieutenant of the Maine Warden Service, also part of the rescue, kept repeating, “There has got to be a better way to do this.”
“Well, that just stuck in my head and I asked myself how can we do this better?” JR recalled, thinking of the difficulties LifeFlight helicopters face accessing landing zones, especially in remote areas of Maine. He distilled the problem down to simply needing more landing zones throughout the state, which sounds easy enough, but not something he could do alone. In 2007, JR with the help of Jason Eaton, systems integration manager for LifeFlight of Maine, gathered a group of people from the Maine Warden Service, law enforcement, recreational snowmobile and ATV clubs, emergency dispatch, and others who all have a stake in the creation of more landing zones—and that was when the Maine Remote Emergency Access project was born.
By leveraging resources and expertise from around the state, JR oversaw the creation of more than 120 remote access landing zones—one of which was near Bonnie. She was taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center where a surgical team was awaiting her arrival. Over the next few weeks, she underwent many surgeries including six skin grafts to help reconstruct her chest and abdomen. In the end, Bonnie lost her spleen, gall bladder, right breast, and all function in her left kidney. She also had a collapsed lung, four broken ribs, two of which were partially removed.
Stories like Bonnie’s are all in a day’s work for JR and the teams at MedComm and LifeFlight of Maine. He sees the access project as a way save lives by improving our emergency rescue infrastructure. “This project, the collaboration, expands our ability to have a known place we can land the aircrafts—it takes away some of the risk in operating in a remote area. We aren’t reinventing the wheel, but we strengthened the spokes so the wheel was stronger and worked better.”
“This project also includes evacuation planning, interlinking communication systems, partnerships for planning, and monitoring systems for reliability. Simply put, the project saves precious minutes, and consequently, lives across Maine,” added Thomas Judge, executive director of LifeFlight of Maine.
The project has garnered national attention. In February, Helicopter Association International (HAI) honored JR as its 2018 winner of HAI’s Salute to Excellence Airbus Helicopters Golden Hour Award. The quick trip to Las Vegas for the award dinner was fun, but JR’s pretty unfazed by accolades—it’s about the project and the teamwork that bring life-saving help to patients like Bonnie. Thinking back on her rescue he said, “What I remember most was the teamwork with the other 911 centers that made it possible. I am grateful that I could meet Bonnie in the hospital and we’ve maintained a connection and have become friends.”
Bonnie returned to work full-time only three months after the accident. Seven months later, she felt almost like herself again. Over the last few years, she’s been able to return to her active life of snowmobiling, whitewater rafting, and spending time on Cape Cod with her family.