Early Days of the Shaw Aid team

By Phil Ekstrom
 
In the very early days (that is before Janice and I were on the scene to observe) retired nurse
Charlotte Lameroux provided most of the medical care on Shaw Island. When there was an
emergency, folks pitched in as they could to help and to send people away on the ferry when
they needed definitive care. When my wife Janice, another nurse, moved to the island, Charlotte
greeted her warmly and did her best to turn her own role over to this welcome newcomer. Some
time later, Nurse Midwife Roberta Crosby and Nurse Practitioner Lola Deane arrived and joined
in.
 
But there was still no organized way to handle serious injuries, a fact that was made very clear
in the summer of 1992 by two fatal accidents, each of which also seriously injured a second
person.
 
Leaking propane fuel led to a boat explosion in Blind Bay, throwing two persons overboard and
leaving one of them with a femur fracture. A third occupant died in the explosion and
subsequent fire.
 
An airplane crashed at the Shaw airstrip, killing the pilot outright and leaving his passenger with
chemical burns from leaded aviation fuel that soaked into his clothes and remained in contact
with his skin.
 
In each case the community rallied around. The injured were rescued and sent off for care, but
in neither case was the situation handled as well as it might have been. Our island needed an
aid team, and islanders set about organizing one.
 
At first, the only way to train as an EMT was to commute to one of the larger islands twice a
week, attend a class which ran until too late to catch the last ferry for Shaw, stay overnight,
return home the next morning, and do it all again until the 100-hour course was complete.
Janice, our first team leader, did just that and qualified as an EMT. The rest of us were either
unwilling or unable to attend the EMT course, and instead trained up only to the level of First
Responder. That was a course and certification established primarily for policemen and
firefighters who would find themselves at the scene of an emergency for other reasons, but we
could arrange to have that course taught on Shaw and could find enough people willing to take
it. The founding team had nine members: Tim Nelson, Al Wilding, Liz Stedman, Malcolm Lea,
Roberta and David Crosby, Lola Deane, Janice and Phil Ekstrom.
 
There was little money for equipment, so we scrounged. The Crosbys donated an old
passenger van for the team to use as its emergency vehicle, named Charlotte in honor of
Charlotte Lameroux. We picked up an old plywood backboard from another aid team that was
replacing it with a plastic one transparent to x-rays. And so it went; where possible, we made do
with cast-offs.
 
We stocked up our jump bags, put on our pagers, and began answering aid calls. Starting from
scratch, we had no one with any field experience. Our three nurses and the physicians who
sometimes stepped in to help us (Don Sutherland, Betty Gilson, and Phil Deane) were all
trained for office and hospital medicine, not field medicine. All of them had done an emergency
room rotation, but even the emergency room is more like the rest of the hospital than it is like an
accident scene. So we were all in unfamiliar territory.
  • Of course our teachers made sure that we knew what to look for, had practiced the techniques
    we should use and were familiar with the equipment we would need, but doing a scenario in
    class, with an instructor standing there to correct your mistakes is quite different from dealing
    with an accident scene where it is just you, your teammates, and the patient with no roof over
    your heads.
     
    Our first patients were met by an excited swarm of newly-minted FR’s who felt like they were
    stumbling through their tasks, and probably were. But we rendered care, patched up some
    injuries, helped save some lives, and found that we were welcomed and honored by the
    community. Slowly we learned from experience those things that are hard to learn in class, and
    slowly we grew into the calm, deliberate, and efficient team of today. Newcomers today get to
    work with old-timers and appear to have an easier time settling in. They certainly do so more
    quickly.
     
    Janice stepped down as team leader when she and I were out of the country for a year
    beginning in the summer of 2001. When we returned, a more advanced class had been
    arranged on Shaw and Helen Riggins was leading a team of EMTs.
     
    Our original passenger van and its successors, purpose-built though still cast-off ambulances,
    served as they had to: nominally to transport us and our equipment to a scene but also in fact to
    transport patients from a scene to the helicopter or ferry when they needed more care than we
    could give them. There are some specific requirements to be met by such a vehicle and one of
    them was the presence of at least one EMT with the patient. Of course no one came around in
    the early days telling us to stop rendering care until we got all the details sorted out, but it was a
    relief when we could finally satisfy all the requirements and get our vehicle properly registered
    and licensed for its actual function.
     
    We have employed a succession of vehicles in this service, replacing one with the next when
    the older vehicle became impractical to use. The most dramatic of those occasions began one
    night when we were holding drill in the Community Building and had left the ambulance in the
    drive-through just outside the building’s front door. Its interior lights were on to enable us to
    quickly find things we would need during our scenarios, and the engine was running to keep the
    lights from draining the battery. As we were working inside the building, someone noticed a
    strange orange light coming in the front door. When we ran out to look, we saw flames coming
    from underneath the vehicle. (We learned later that an exhaust leak had ignited a sprayed-on
    cork-and-tar anti-corrosion coating.) We called out the firefighters and began to do what we
    could with a hand-held extinguisher, but it was fortunate that we had some of our equipment out
    and in use. By the time the fire was finally out, the ambulance and all of its remaining contents
    were ruined. Fortunately it had not happened during a real aid call.
     
    A picture of that burnt-out wreck posted to a fire and aid web site moved five other agencies to
    each offer us a cast-off ambulance. We chose the one we liked best and were back in business
    within a week. When our delegation arrived to pick up the vehicle, the donors were interested to
    hear about life in a small-scale aid unit. On hearing the size of our yearly budget, the response
    was: “Our bandage budget is bigger than that! Here, let’s throw in some more stuff for them.”
     
    But this has run past the early days. Someone else should take over telling the rest.

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