Special Report: Flying High With Life Link’s Life Savers

DULUTH, Minn. – Police, fire and medical are three professions where people are trained to help us – often during the worst times of our lives. In a special report called “Life Savers,” FOX 21’s Dan Hanger introduces you to some of the men and women who not only help on the ground but also thousands of feet in the air.

“This is the Agusta 119KX. It’s one of the most modern helicopters yet,” explained Mani Ignatius, a pilot for Life Link III. “We fly at about almost 145 knots, which is almost 170 mph.”

It’s a speed where every second counts.

“Everything is my responsibility because the operational control flight is mine.”

The Life Link III helicopter is a state-of-the-art medical chopper serving the most critical patients throughout the Northland region.

“You feel that you have done something to change somebody’s life,” Ignatius said.

While this chopper is impressive on the outside, it’s what’s inside that’s even more on beat.

“It’s not just about the fancy helicopter and fancy equipment. You need trained clinicians that are able to take care of the sickest patients and manage those patients at their worst,” said Kolby Kolbet, vice president of clinical services for Life Link III.  “It’s not a complete substitute for an emergency room or intensive care unit, but it’s the best of both worlds.”

Kolbet is responsible for making this tight space as functional as possible for the nurse and paramedic while strategically placing the best technology and services available for the patient.

“We have to really do a risk benefit analysis of what is going to benefit the patients the most. And what are we going to get our biggest bang for our buck in managing the patient, as far as adding equipment and weight,” Kolbet said.

“It’s the best job in the world. It really is,” said Mindy Olander, a flight nurse for Life Link III.

“To be able to walk ion there and calm them — to see them on the side of the road when accidents happen and to be able to be that face of calmness and that we are going to take care of you — is just such a great feeling,” Olander said.

Olander used to be a nurse in a hospital’s intensive care unit before taking to the air with her patients, which is something she says comes with a whole lot of new challenges.

“When we land on scene, this helicopter is our responsibility. Everybody that’s on that scene is our responsibility so that we land and we take off safe, including our patients,” Olander said.

Mental health also plays a critical role for the flight crew, which is why they get together at the start of their shift to talk about what’s going on in their lives — all to allow the clearest mind possible when the call for help comes in.

“Because when I’m in the helicopter and things are going bad back there, I hope my paramedic is not thinking about, oh my word, my pet is, ya know, sick at home, or anything like that. I want them to be mentally healthy while we’re working with the patient,” Olander explained.

And in a job where traumatic scenes are inevitable Life Link makes sure a mental health expert is available for the crew, along with what are known as “critical incident stress debriefings.”

“The toughest calls – pediatrics — hands down are pediatrics,” Olander said. “We just talk about it. We go through how are you feeling? What do you think about this now? It really, really helps.”

But when it comes to death, Olander has learned as long as she’s performing her very best with the patient, there’s never really any guilt for the loss of life.

“You not necessarily become comfortable with death.  But you understand that death is as much a part of life as life is. Things happen. We always hope for a good death, and should that happen, then that’s what happens and that’s OK,” Olander explained.

It’s a special group of first responders who are giving their heart out thousands of feet in the air — all with the passion of keeping people alive.

“I’ve developed the skills and I have the knowledge to help somebody in probably one of their worst days.  And that’s the best feeling,” Olander said.

“We never know it could be our own mother, father, brother, and we always want be there,” Kolbet said.

“It is a very satisfying responsibility. And when we accomplish — successfully accomplish a mission, it gives us a lot of satisfaction,” Ignatius said.

Life Link III was recently named “Program of the Year” by the Association of Medical Services.

The air-medical program is contracted with Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical center and St. Luke’s in Duluth, along with eight other hospitals in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.