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Air ambulance hoping to resume flights soon

The province has ordered a review of 15 cases handled by STARS.

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The province has ordered a review of 15 cases handled by STARS. (MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES)

The head of the Alberta-based Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society helicopter ambulance service, grounded by the Manitoba government Monday, wants the emergency service to return to the sky as soon as possible.

STARS president and CEO Andrea Robertson said she is hopeful two provincial reviews into the service will eventually see STARS back in the air over southern Manitoba.

"If there's one single thing we can do better, we're absolutely open to that," Robertson said Tuesday.

The STARS emergency medical service was suspended by the province following the death Friday of a woman suffering from cardiac arrest.

Health Minister Erin Selby said the woman's death is being investigated as a critical incident -- the third in less than a year. The three incidents all involve the delivery of oxygen to a patient.

The first occurred last February and involved an adult -- no details have been released -- and saw six dispatch restrictions placed by provincial medical officials on STARS, including the type of patient the service could fly and the distance it could transport patients.

The second critical incident was in May and involved two-year-old Morgan Moar-Campbell. He was being flown from Brandon aboard the STARS helicopter for tests following a seizure. The boy was in an induced coma and could not breathe on his own. When he landed in Winnipeg, it was discovered his breathing tube had been pulled out, depriving him of oxygen and leaving him severely brain-damaged. His case is now the subject of a lawsuit.

The province has ordered a review of 15 cases handled by STARS.

"We are absolutely focused on doing everything possible to make sure that going forward every patient that we touch is provided with the best and the safest care that we can possible give," said STARS medical director Dr. Michael Betzner. "But we transport critically unwell patients and this is a very difficult, high-risk time for patients."

STARS is also the subject of a value-for-money audit by Manitoba's auditor general to be released early next year. The audit is looking at the province's 10-year, $100-million contract with STARS, which was signed last February.

The experience of STARS in Alberta, where it started in the mid-1990s, and in Saskatchewan, where it began operating in 2012, is the opposite of Manitoba's. Neither western province has investigated a critical incident involving STARS. STARS had never been suspended until this week in Manitoba.

In Saskatchewan on Tuesday, the province announced STARS can now land at Regina General Hospital, with Transport Canada certifying a new $3.4-million rooftop heliport. In October in Calgary, STARS unveiled a new $16-million AW139 helicopter to add to its fleet.

In the Manitoba legislature Tuesday, Opposition Progressive Conservative health critic Cameron Friesen said the STARS suspension comes at a time when the province is hard-pressed to provide emergency service in rural Manitoba.

"The minister said she has a plan, but remember, the minister has said she had a plan before.

"When we have raised questions about ambulance wait times, the minister has said it's all good, we have STARS," Friesen said. "We've raised questions about doctor shortages in rural communities, the minister has said, we have STARS. We have raised questions about ER closures and she has said we have STARS. Now we don't have STARS."

Selby said the province has reconfigured its fixed-wing air ambulance system in the absence of STARS so patients needing medical care are flown from rural and northern Manitoba to Winnipeg as quickly as possible. The fleet includes two critical-care air ambulance jets and 24 basic air-ambulance aircraft.

"It definitely was not an easy decision," Selby said of the temporary suspension. "It was on the advice of medical professionals that told us that they had serious concerns about procedures not perhaps being followed."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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