Officials at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre have unveiled a new helipad for the province’s air ambulance system, a major improvement advocates say could mean the difference between life and death.
Sarah Ginn told reporters shortly after the ribbon cutting of the $13.5-million helipad Thursday afternoon that she knows how essential these types of hospital assets are.
In January 2003, she and several others were seriously injured in a multi-vehicle crash on an icy road near Kawartha Lakes.
“Both of my lungs had collapsed. My liver was torn right in half. My entire brain was bleeding,” Ginn recalled.
“My boyfriend then he apparently had his head turned. He was yelling at me, he was upset with me, he wasn’t paying attention to the road – distracted driving – and the old man swerved in our lane because of the icy roads.”
An Ornge air ambulance crew brought Ginn to Sunnybrook Hospital from Peterborough. She was in a coma for weeks and required extensive surgery.
“The social worker told me that all the years she’s been in this ICU, I’m the only one that survived a brain damage like this … It means so much to be living a second chance,” Ginn said.
“The pilot, the paramedics, they saved my life. If it wasn’t for them being there that minute, that second, I wouldn’t have survived the way I have. (It was) the greatest gift of having them pick me up and bring me here.”
Ginn said she is legally blind and cannot see out of her left eye, but she is able to walk and added she appreciates all the care she has received to date. She is now a public speaker with Sunnybrook’s P.A.R.T.Y. (Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth) program.
For more than 40 years, crews have had to use a land-based helipad. Currently Ornge must use the helipad located next to a parking garage that is approximately 500 metres away from the entrance to the hospital’s emergency room and trauma bay.
“We currently land there, we have to rendezvous with a Toronto EMS paramedic crew, unload our patient, and then reload them into that ambulance, take the ambulance ride up to the trauma room and deliver the patient there,” Justin Smith, chief flight paramedic with Ornge, told reporters.
“All of that requires a lot of coordination between our communication centres and the paramedics on the ground. This (new helipad) allows us to seamless take the patient from the helicopter to the trauma team.”
Officials said that direct access could mean up to 15 minutes saved for crews — vital time for patients in the most critical condition.
“That (time) could mean the difference between being able to care for yourself or relying on others to care for you. That literally could mean surviving and not surviving,” Smith said.
Dr. Homer Tien, a trauma and general surgeon at Sunnybrook, echoed the importance of shaving off travel minutes.
“If someone is bleeding, it’s really about supporting them with resuscitation and breathing. And in those cases, that extra 15 minutes can literally be life or death,” he said.
Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre serves as a major trauma hub for patients as far west as Oakville, north to Parry Sound and east to Peterborough. However, complex care patients can arrive from as far away as Thunder Bay. Of the approximately 2,000 trauma patients that come to Sunnybrook, around 15 per cent arrive by air ambulance.
In July 2018, construction mostly funded by donations began on the ninth floor roof of the Bayview Avenue hospital’s M-wing.
Measuring 75 feet by 75 feet and supported by steel, the aluminum platform is billed as Canada’s second largest helipad and it can support helicopters up to 35,000 pounds (about 20,000 pounds heavier than the current Ornge helicopters).
The helipad has a heating system to keep it clear of snow and ice. There is a covered walkway that leads to the platform and it has direct elevators, which can be reserved, for personnel to quickly access the trauma bay, critical care ward, operating rooms, the neonatal unit, and the burn unit.
The current helipad on the southeast end of the hospital property will remain functional as a back-up site if weather conditions or if medical needs (such as a mass casualty event) require it.