With warm southerly winds, it was a perfect August afternoon aboard a 43-foot sailboat, cruising near Metinic Island in Penobscot Bay. But when a sudden jibe caused a boom to slam Bob Monks in the head, his family and friends aboard thought he was dead.
He had been knocked unconscious as he tried to rig a whisker boom for wing-and-wing sailing. His son Max, then about 13, checked his pulse and called the U.S. Coast Guard from the boat. Within minutes, Lifeflight of Maine was on the way, and took Monks to a Lewiston hospital where doctors said he had a severe concussion. Wife Bonnie said the crew from Lifeflight was wonderful, saving her husbandÕs life.

Such an experience “affects who you are as a human being,” said Bob Monks, a real estate developer. “To this day, I feel trepidation about sailing.” Max, now a senior at Wayneflete School in Portland, wrote an essay on what happened to his dad, and when it was read aloud in class, students were spellbound.

James Brown of North Haven has boatbuilding in the blood. Now in his 80s, he walks down to the J.O. Brown and Sons boat yard daily, where he answers phones and waits on customers. He is proud that sons, grandsons and granddaughters all work at the business his grandfather founded in 1888.

But there’s something else that runs in the family: a heart condition. His father and grandfather died of heart problems and a few years back, and when it was his turn to suffer an attack, Lifeflight came to the rescue with a helicopter ride to a Portland hospital. Today Brown is still working “even though I’m supposed to be retired. I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something to do. I’ve got to get some exercise.”

For acutely sick or severely hurt islanders, Lifeflight is – weather permitting – there to help. The Lewiston and Bangor-based emergency medical service has saved lives from rural Aroostook County to Casco Bay, using a helicopter to rush critical patients to hospitals and trauma centers. A chopper with medical technicians aboard can reach Vinalhaven in 20 minutes. One patient was flown nonstop from Monhegan to a Boston hospital. Monhegan is a community with no airport, so the only other option would have been a 10-mile boat ride to the mainland followed by a trip in an ambulance.

Available year-round, every day of the year, Lifeflight’s two helicopters – purchase price $8.5 million – can fly 175 miles per hour. They can bring lifesaving staff and equipment to the scene, or carry patients to the care they need to survive. The service is provided regardless of ability to pay, and it is expensive. Hospitals and the state kick in some funding, and Union-based Lifeflight Foundation raises more money. The nonprofit service costs about $6.5 million per year to operate. Typically, Lifeflight flies more than two dozen missions per year. “It’s expensive,” conceded executive director Tom Judge of Port Clyde, “but targeted at the right patients, this is very cost effective.”

A growing problem, he said, is patient inability to pay for care. “It’s a very big problem in Maine. If they don’t have insurance, we work with them. We just write it off.” The service includes nurses, medics and oversight by 17 physicians. Judge said Lifeflight’s success depends on education as well as speedy transport. Last year his organization sponsored more than 150 classes, many of them held on Maine islands.

In its seven years of existence, Lifeflight has made 1,000 flights.

Not every mission ends happily for patients. “Some run out of time before we can get them, some after we get them,” Judge acknowledged. But that’s not surprising with critically ill or injured individuals.

In August 2004, Megan Day of Vinalhaven was full-term pregnant and hemorrhaging. She lost consciousness in an upstairs bathroom. Then, as luck would have it, Lifeflight’s crew was on the island for a class, and when Day’s in-laws called for help, the crew reached her in moments, rushing her from the island school yard to Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport. The baby had no detectable pulse. In another lucky coincidence, it was “baby day” at the hospital and every area doctor and nurse concerned with childbirth was on hand. After an emergency Caesarian birth, mother and baby girl Kyra were flown to Portland. The father, fisherman Ken Day, followed by ferryboat to Rockland, since the helicopter couldn’t carry another passenger.

Megan Day, who has two older sons, said doctors found an anneurism in her kidney and they were able to repair it surgically. Last July she returned for a scan and was told her kidney is now fully functional. Kyra is now 15 months and healthy.
Day said Lifeflight was her lifeline. “If they hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here now.”

With its light, twin-engine Italian helicopters, Lifeflight can fly from Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor to the Canadian border and back on a single tank of fuel. Last spring, Lifeflight saved Burton Wheaton, 80, of Swan’s Island, when he crashed his car into a frozen snowbank. He was flown to EMMC for emergency treatment of his injuries. A majority of Lifeflight’s calls appear to involve motor vehicle collisions, including airlifting a couple of Medomak Valley High School students injured in mid-November in Warren.

PBMC is among hospitals with a designated helicopter pad. Maine Medical Center in Portland doesn’t have one yet, so patients must land at Portland’s airport and arrive at the hospital by ambulance.

Vinalhaven native Chris Davidson is proud to represent her fellow residents – most of whom she knows personally – on the Lifeflight board of directors. A music teacher turned real estate broker, she is an island native who has seen firsthand how the helicopters and their crews can save lives. Megan Day was one of her piano students years ago, and Davidson can’t help smiling when she sees Megan and Kyra around town. Remembering Day’s brush with death, Davidson said “the stars were aligned, and Lifeflight was on the island.”

“It’s really crucial to have the service, it’s just essential for the islands. I’m really honored to be on the board. I’m a small-town girl at heart. I just believe in people helping people,” she said.

Davidson said a close-knit community can get a lot done. “I’m not going to save the world,” she said, but “what a difference it makes. Together you can do anything.”

For less critical illnesses and injuries, islanders typically have the option of ferries, such as Casco Bay Lines or state ferries in Penobscot Bay; as well as private vessels. Casco Bay is also served by Portland’s emergency rescue boat, available at all times. North Haven, Vinalhaven, Islesboro and Matinicus all have airports, providing another option.

Subsidy helps
families stay close in

The Island Institute sponsors a program to help island residents stay near loved ones during hospitalization for injury or illness.

Since July 1, the program which is several years old, has subsidized 54 nights in hotel rooms for island families.

The lodging arrangement serves islanders from Midcoast to Downeast Maine, and it provides $40 per room for as long as the need is there. For the past five years, the $6,000 annual program has been funded by MBNA, which formerly provided rooms at its Brewster Inn in Camden. The inn is no longer available, and this year the Rockland-based institute will pay for islanders’ lodging on the mainland.

In Ellsworth, islanders pay only $9 per room with the subsidy at The Colonial, which is owned by an island resident. In Rockland, both the Tradewinds and Navigator hotels participate in the lodging program. The program formerly included subsidy for island people pursuing professional development, but funds are now restricted to medical-related visits, according to Rob Snyder, the Institute’s vice president for programs. The program is administered by Sally Perkins.


Bill would give free ferry pass
to islanders seeking medical care

A bill to give free ferry service to islanders needing medical attention on the mainland has been introduced by Sen. Christine Savage (R-Union).

She said the Department of Transportation, which operates state ferries, has drafted the bill through its legal division, and the Legislative Council has approved it. The bill would provide reduced or free ferry rides to individuals who are, for example, receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Travel expenses are very expensive and no insurance pays for that, Savage said. She is confident the bill will pass. “I can’t imagine why anyone would be opposed to it.” But those served by private ferry lines might want similar breaks, she said.

State ferries travel to Vinalhaven, North Haven, Islesboro, Matinicus, Frenchboro and Swan’s Island. Savage serves on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.


FREE to an Island: One Ambulance

The town of Long Island in Casco Bay is making available its 1984 Ford F-350 Type 3 ambulance to another island if that community is willing to pick it up in Portland. “It’s in good condition,” said Long Island fire chief Coleman (Dicky) Clarke, who may be contacted at 766-4432. The ambulance will be available in mid-December, when Long Island takes delivery of its new one.