A post-hospital taxi ride home can be an uncomfortable sounding proposition, especially when the hospital is in Edmonton and home is Slave Lake.
That was the case for one woman who found herself in need of a lift Thursday after being discharged from the Grey Nuns Hospital. But thanks to a group of volunteer pilots, her return trip was a lot shorter and cheaper.
“Generally what happens is the hospital or medical facility, or whatever, has a client and they know that there is some need,” said Barton Pawluski, one of about 15 pilots who offer their planes and expertise as part of Angel Flight Alberta, a charitable organization that helps bridge the gap for people living in remote areas who need city health services.
“I’m acutely aware that Canada really does have two-tiered medicine in that there is urban and there is also rural medicine,” said Dr. Kerry Pawluski, Barton’s brother and founder of the service in Alberta. “Just to offset some of the stress to patients who are trying to get in for medical treatments or sometimes being repatriated to their home towns, we launched this volunteer pilot organization.”
Kerry Pawluski, a physician who works at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, came across a similar service that began in 2001 in B.C. and managed to use their model as a template for Alberta. They began offering the free flights in 2006 to people he says have “fallen through the cracks” and end up stranded at city hospitals.
Clients have ranged from those needing to get home after emergency medical evacuations from remote communities to scheduled appointments that are a long drive.
The company usually gets a call from a hospital or social worker asking about availability. They get the patient’s name, age and height, and then work out the details of the flight, which can depend on weather and pilot availability. They also make sure someone is at the destination to pick up the patient before flying out of Josephburg Airport east of Fort Saskatchewan.
Because the flights are not dealing with medical emergencies, pilots don’t need medical experience — Barton Pawluski is an engineer — and the cost is a fraction of what a medevac would be. For example, the Slave Lake flight, which will cost less than $400, would easily cost in the thousands for a medevac trip.
Plus, the savings to hospitals, where patients take up beds as they recover for a potentially longer trip home, are large enough to make public funding sensible, Kerry Pawluski said.
“This is a very modest cost in comparison to doing a medevac,” he said. “We need to ask the taxpayer, is this something that you and I are comfortable in paying for?”
For now, the company has managed to find corporate sponsors to offset its costs and co-operation with Alberta Air Ambulance has been positive.
What they need is for the public and medical practitioners to know they exist. Compared to its B.C. counterpart, which does about 240 flights a year, the Alberta group has done only 70 in their 10 years in the air. Alberta Health Services, on the other hand, performs about 7,000 fixed-wing medevac flights a year.
“We’ve built it and they haven’t come yet,” said Kerry Pawluski, hoping some of its recent marketing will help.
“My end goal is to alleviate some of the stress that people are experiencing.”