Advances in medical technology mean LifeFlight's role is constantly evolving

As medical technology has advanced, LifeFlight’s role in the rural emergency healthcare system has also changed. Flight nurses and medics have continued to master more and more complex medicine and have added increasingly advanced equipment to their onboard medical kit. This evolution is critical to the success of the statewide system. And it’s critical for patients like 35-year-old Emily Dyer who received treatment from four different healthcare facilities before she could finally return home weeks later. 

Emily started exhibiting signs of a heart attack one morning while she was exercising at home. Her husband and mother rushed her to the local emergency department at Cary Medical Center in Caribou. An EKG showed she was having a heart attack and the likely culprit was a blockage of some kind. The ED team called for LifeFlight to transport Emily to Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor where cardiac surgeons could take over care.

At Northern Light EMMC, cardiac specialists realized her symptoms were being caused by a coronary artery dissection. This life-threatening condition occurs when the layers that make up the walls of the coronary artery start to tear apart, severely impairing her heart’s ability to pump blood forward. As a stop-gap measure, they implanted an impella—a device that helps the heart pump blood more effectively. By this time, Emily was also on a ventilator and multiple infusion pumps.

With two complex pieces of equipment to manage and no time to spare, LifeFlight was called back to transport Emily to Maine Medical Center in Portland for even more specialized treatment. Emily's condition continued to deteriorate at MMC. The dissection was causing more and more strain on both her heart and her lungs, so the team started Emily on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)—a highly advanced mobile cardio-pulmonary bypass that pumps blood outside of the body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygen-filled blood back into the body.

Realizing that Emily was likely going to need a heart transplant in Boston, the team at MMC called for LifeFlight once again. Emily still had an Impella device, a ventilator and multiple infusion pumps, and now she was also hooked up to an ECMO machine. In addition to all of this equipment, a third clinical provider would also be required—a specialist with expertise in managing the ECMO, known as a perfusionist. The flight crew knew there wasn’t enough room in the helicopter so Emily, all of her equipment and her 3-person medical team loaded into the back of an ambulance and headed to Boston. 

In Boston, heart specialists determined that Emily’s body wasn’t ready for a transplant yet and instead would require an interim solution. They implanted an LVAD, a portable mechanical device that would help Emily’s weakened heart pump blood. Multiple infections and allergic reactions kept Emily in Boston for nearly four weeks, but eventually her body began to respond positively to both the LVAD and her new medications.

Emily was able to return home to northern Maine to continue her recovery and wait for a new heart. She says she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from her community. Her high school classmates held a benefit dinner and a third grader from her church sold lemonade throughout the summer. Those efforts raised thousands of dollars to support Emily’s recovery and her regular trips back to see her physicians in Boston.