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Published on April 19, 2017

MedLink AIR on helipad

Never missing a beat: Gundersen MedLink AIR

(Thump Thump…Thump Thump)
Fred Lechner could feel it in his chest: He had to get off the interstate and get help.

(Thump Thump…Thump Thump)
As the rotor blades beat to life, Tony Hovey and Lance Luther knew they would need to work fast once they reached Fred's side.

(Thump Thump…Thump Thump)
The operating room doors closed and doctors, nurses and staff lifted Fred onto the table to put their training to practice.


The pulse of this story begins on a Sunday in October 2016 behind the wheel of Fred's semi, rolling down Interstate 90, bound for New York State from his home in Black River Falls, Wis.

"I felt sick, so I decided to get off the road and take a break," the career truck driver says.

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At a truck stop in Mauston, Wis., Fred's condition worsened. He called his son, Matt, who also lives in Black River Falls, for a ride home. This is one of the last things Fred remembers clearly. Fred was having a heart attack. An ambulance was called and Fred's symptoms were quickly recognized by paramedics from Mauston EMS, who relayed the information to the team at Mile Bluff Medical Center in Mauston.

After a short ambulance ride, Fred was assessed by staff at Mile Bluff Medical Center, who quickly initiated Gundersen Health System's Priority One Heart Attack protocol.

While Mile Bluff staff talked by phone with Gundersen Emergency Services and Cardiac Catheterization Lab staff to prepare Fred for treatment at the La Crosse Hospital, Tony, a flight nurse; Lance, a flight paramedic; and pilot Ivan Brentin took flight in Gundersen MedLink AIR's helicopter based in Sparta (see below) and were at Mile Bluff within minutes.

"We knew we would have to work quickly once we landed," says Tony. "We knew Fred's only chance to survive was to take our flight."

Tony and Lance were back in the air with Fred in less than seven minutes, thanks to the Priority One preparation by the Mile Bluff team. But just after liftoff, Fred's heart failed.

"Almost immediately, Fred went into a fatal heart rhythm and was unconscious," Tony says. Tony and Lance used a defibrillator to bring Fred back not once, but nine times during the roughly 20 minute flight from Mauston to La Crosse.

"It was a blur. I remember someone saying my name and shaking me, but I was pretty well gone," Fred recalls.

"He was in and out of consciousness with each shock," Lance says. "We eventually had to insert a tube to manage Fred's airway and put him to sleep to make him more comfortable. Still, I thought ‘he may not survive this flight.'"

Emergency and Cardiac Catheterization Lab staff were waiting and ready to act as MedLink AIR landed on the La Crosse Hospital rooftop landing pad.

After defibrillating Fred two more times and handing him off to Gundersen medical staff, Tony and Lance decided to stay with Fred.

"You get invested in someone when you really have to work on someone like we did with Fred," Tony says. "You want to know: 'Is he alive? Did we do enough?'"

Lance and Tony visited Fred in the Critical Care Unit the next day. He couldn't talk, but Fred gave the two men a thumbs-up and smiled, tears of gratitude welling in his eyes.

The road to recovery has been long, but Fred is back behind the wheel of his beloved truck, grateful for a second chance.

"I couldn't have asked for better people for my care," Fred says. "I'd rather go to Gundersen than anywhere else."

"I will always remember this case," Lance says. "I am very thankful I was working with a great crew that day, and that I'm part of a great team."

"You train and you wait, but you prepare like every day is game day," Tony says. "We see people on their worst days. We have great people to make these days better."

Second helicopter takes flight for the best regional care

When minutes count, you can count on Gundersen MedLink AIR. And now Gundersen Health System's emergency medical helicopter team is providing even more rapid care to your community.

"In Fred's case, having the helicopter in Sparta made the difference," says Tony Hovey, flight nurse, Gundersen MedLink AIR. "When you reduce the time for patient care, you make a difference."

MedLink AIR is permanently adding a second helicopter to its fleet to give trauma or emergency patients like Fred Lechner the immediate care they need, wherever they are located in our region.

"We transported more than 550 patients in our region in 2016," says Stephanie Hill, program director for MedLink AIR. "Permanently adding a second helicopter, with service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will give us better patient outcomes for time-critical emergencies such as stroke, heart attack and trauma."

"This is great news for the communities who have supported this service for many years," Stephanie continues. "We're excited to have another option to bring the best care directly to people where they live, when they need it most."

Gundersen has been leasing a second helicopter since June 2016 as a trial. When the new helicopter and crews are ready by the end of 2017, the two helicopters will likely be permanently based outside La Crosse—one at the Decorah (Iowa) Airport and one at the Sparta-Fort McCoy (Wisc.) Airport. This will allow for more rapid response to patients in our region and faster transport times to La Crosse.

One of only five emergency medical helicopter services headquartered in Wisconsin accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems, MedLink AIR can be airborne in minutes to serve communities in western Wisconsin, northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota.