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October 12th, 2009
12:45 PM ET

Buying time to save patients

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/HEALTH/10/12/cheating.death.bagenholm/art.bagenholm.rescue.jpg caption="Rescuers worked frantically to save Anna Bagenholm from a hole in the ice of a mountain stream."]

David S. Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

North of the Arctic Circle, the weather is unforgiving, the population is scattered and the distances are immense. At the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø, the northernmost teaching hospital in the world, doctors routinely use a helicopter ambulance and fixed-wing plane to transport the most serious cases for care – or to bring emergency care to the patient. It’s all about buying time.

During a visit Tromsø, we shadowed Dr. Mads Gilbert, who heads the Department of Emergency Medical Services at the hospital, a small city surrounded by water and mountains. He describes trauma care in this part of the world as “cold, dark, distance and dangerous.” The cold poses its own challenges, and Dr. Gilbert and the team see a lot of hypothermia from ski accidents and people who’ve fallen out of fishing boats falling into the water.

Dr. Gilbert was on call 24 hours a day all week when we were there. He is 62, a rangy man with the energy and enthusiasm of someone half his age.

“What we do with emergency medicine — be it airway breathing, chest compressions, bleeding control, treating hypothermia — is to slow or even stop the death process. So it’s really the struggle between life and death and I always feel like we’re standing on the shore with the tide coming up. We’re trying to pull people from the tide of death and onto the dry land of life,” Gilbert said with a flourish.

Hours after we arrived, his team scrambled in the middle of the night, putting on jumpsuits and helmets and climbing aboard the helicopter ambulance. The temperature was just a degree or two above freezing as the helicopter lifted off and a chilling rain soon began to fall. A young man was suffering from an uncontrollable seizure, and the local doctor wasn’t sure whether it was an allergic reaction or something more serious. The helicopter ambulance team brought the patient back to the hospital.

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Filed under: Health Care • Sanjay Gupta
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