Barbara Sue Brodie thought she had altitude sickness.
She’d felt “off” the whole morning of July 22 — chest pain, shortness of breath — and wasn’t up for a hike around Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park. Her husband Brad and daughter Sarah walked her back to a waiting area for boat rides. She doesn’t remember when things went drastically wrong.
According to Sarah, Barbara Sue mouthed “I think I’m having a heart attack” just before she passed out. “And the next thing I knew,” she said eight months after the emergency, “I was waking up at the ICU in Kalispell.”
She woke up despite a massive arterial blockage, and is able to tell her story today, in part because of the rapid response of Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s ALERT helicopter emergency flight service, which whisked her from Glacier to the hospital with enough time to keep her heart beating.
The ALERT program — short for Advanced Life-support and Emergency Rescue Team — is hosting its 40th annual banquet on April 21. Barbara Sue will be a featured guest, returning to Kalispell from her home in South Carolina for the first time to thank the crew and medical staff who saved her life.
She said she’s looking forward to “having a chance to tell everyone here how much I appreciate what they did for me...to seeing my doctors and nurses and the flight crew.”
The team effort is essential to ALERT’s ability to serve as a critical lifeline for greater Northwest Montana, from emergency backcountry rescues to transporting patients in dire need of Kalispell Regional’s expertise to the hospital campus.
The program began with a single air ambulance in 1975, after private transport proved too long and too ill-equipped to save a local man from a remote logging accident. It is the second-oldest hospital-based air-ambulance system and the first one to serve a rural area.
Despite the need for an emergency air transport system in the Flathead Valley and beyond, ALERT ran into funding problems in its early years. Luckily, members of the community rallied around the program, forming a community advisory board and initiating the first fundraiser banquet in 1978.
Since those early days, ALERT has expanded into a three-tier emergency response system that has conducted more than 13,000 flights and saved over 1,500 lives within 150 nautical miles of Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
The program’s signature helicopter ambulance, ALERT I, covers 350 miles and serves some of region’s most remote communities, all the way from Eureka to Ronan to Barbara Sue in Glacier National Park. ALERT II, the hospital’s fixed-wing, turboprop airplane, serves smaller Montana towns, such as Great Falls or Havre, and transports patients for specialized care to Kalispell or to hospitals in Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake City, Palo Alto, California; Portland, or Rochester, Minnesota. ALERT III is the hospital’s ground ambulance system, designed to support the fixed-wing plane — especially as specialized pediatric care ramps up at Kalispell Regional.
With the opening of the Montana Children’s Medical Center next spring, ALERT likely will transport more patients such as Zaya Stoner. The 6-year-old from Belgrade, outside of Bozeman, was on her way to school on March 8 with her father, Beau, when a car accident shattered her pancreas.
Faced with the a life-threatening condition, Zaya was flown by ALERT II to Kalispell, where pediatric surgeon Dr. Gavin Falk could perform an emergency laparoscopic distal pancreatectomy.
The crew, ready at a moment’s notice, was calm and extremely prepared, remembered Beau Stoner. “When we got there the doctors and surgeons knew that she was coming and they were pretty much ready to put her in into surgery,” he said.
Between the fixed-wing flight, ambulance and attentive care from Dr. Falk and the nursing staff, Stoner was left deeply grateful for the well-oiled process. “Everyone in general — the staff, the people that flew her, came to check up on her — just going above and beyond, that was great,” he said.
To ensure more success stories in the future, the ALERT community board hosts the annual banquet to raise funds and renew bonds with the community. This year, the focus is on securing the final couple of hundred-thousand dollars to cover ALERT’s new helicopter. The $4 million Bell 407 helicopter, purchased with upfront funds by a “friend of ALERT” last year, is equipped with the latest life-saving technology and labeled as “N407VS” — “VS” for Velinda Stevens, the longtime president of Kalispell Regional Healthcare who died in January 2017.
The football-themed banquet will also celebrate 40 years of community support for the program. “The partnership between KRH and the community has such a strong history and it’s hard to say that the program would be in the shape that is in today without this support,” said Tagen Vine, president of the Kalispell Regional Healthcare Foundation. “This community is critical to the future of the program.”
For Barbara Sue Brodie, the banquet offers an opportunity to turn the spotlight on a team whose preparation made all the difference.
“Words really do fail me because it is just impossible to put into words how grateful I am for everything that the hospital did for me,” she said. They were not just kind, they were spot-on, trained to do exactly what I needed when I needed it and I owe them my life. I owe them everything.”
The banquet begins with cocktails at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. Attire is Montana formal or football-themed, with a prize for the best costume. For more information or to view auction items, visit www.krh.org/alertbanquet. For tickets, contact Lori Alsbury at (406) 752-1710 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adrian Horton may be reached at 758-4439 or email@example.com.