ThedaStar celebrate 35 years of service in Northeast Wisconsin

Published: Sep. 3, 2021 at 3:45 PM CDT
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NEENAH, Wis. (WBAY) - This summer marks 35 years since ThedaStar air medical was commissioned and flew its first patient. Three plus decades later, the mission has remained the same -- and even some of the staff. And while ThedaStar has come a long way, it still has plenty of plans for the future.

Air medical aid, used to transport injured service members, was proven as an effective way to save lives during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Visionaries in the Fox Valley, including Theda Clark Medical Center leaders, wanted to bring that concept to civilian care.

On June 2, 1986, the ThedaStar program began. Four days later, the helicopter team flew its first patient. Part of the original ThedaStar team 35 years ago, veteran flight nurse, Pam Witt-Hillen, still flies today. According to Witt-Hillen, “It was a hard start. We didn’t know what we were doing at first, trying to fit in and learn. And I’m proud. We were the third program in the State of Wisconsin and we’re still here, busy program, making a difference every day.”

Since then, ThedaStar has flown more than 15,000 people, all with a variety of critical care needs. “You never go home feeling like you didn’t make a difference. We make a difference every day for people,” adds Witt-Hillen.

The team averages about two flights a day, a number that increases in the summer because of additional outdoor recreational activities sometimes leading to traumatic events. It takes the ThedaStar team of two caretakers and a pilot about 8 minutes from the time a call comes in until they’re in the air. There’s usually another 15 to 20 minutes of flight time before arriving and getting to work.

Kirk Vandenberg is the ThedaStar program manager. He says, “Part of our role is to rapidly respond to provide the care, to bring out treatment to them and to cut the time it takes to get them back to definitive care here at the trauma center.”

And while many people recognize the helicopter as something that responds to major incidents like car crashes and industrial accidents, things like that, it’s only part of what the ThedaStar team does.

“We take care of stroke, cardiac, general medical patients. The vast majority of patients we transport, though, are from hospital to hospital. So, about 70% we will go directly to an outlying hospital, critical access hospital where they have maybe limited resources,” says Vandenberg.

Just like in 1986, the ThedaStar team is still made up of 10 clinicians. Right now, it has two critical care paramedics and eight nurses. They work 12 to 24 hour shifts. All are specially trained to handle the critical and traumatic cases that come their way.

“A total of 162 years of experience just flying on the helicopter, not to mention the time those clinicians worked before in emergency department, ICUs, on ambulance services,” says Vandenberg. He adds, “The amount of experience in health care that our team has is remarkable, and they provide an outstanding service.”

Four pilots and two mechanics are responsible for the helicopter, which ThedaStar leases. According to Vandenberg, “We’re in the business of providing the care, we’re not in the business of managing helicopters.”

And as the team looks to the next 35 years, expansion isn’t out of the question. In fact, ThedaStar is confident that is on the horizon. Vandenberg added, “We want to make sure that patients have access to rapid transport when and if they need it.”

And transport that has proven to be the difference between life and death.

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