Busy Vernon Family Doctor by day, Medical Director of the Vernon Search and Rescue Helicopter Winchline Rescue Program by good fortune!
When Gavin Smart, MD’84 is not performing his day job as a busy Vernon family doctor, he volunteers his time assisting with Helicopter Winchline Rescue (HWR) missions in the Northern Okanagan region, often in unforgiving winter conditions. When asked if he foresaw himself winching out of helicopters at the beginning of his medical career, Smart replied that the prospect was unimaginable. The unimaginable meandered into reality when in 2014 a friend asked Smart to be the Medical Director of the Vernon Search and Rescue HWR Program, a two year pilot project funded by Emergency Management B.C.
Based out of Vernon, BC, the Vernon Search and Rescue HWR Program responds to emergency situations within a 200km radius of Vernon and rescues the seriously injured, the lost, or those who have fallen ill in remote terrain. Through this program, Smart’s team is able to winch down on a cable to an emergency scene directly from their helicopter, obviating man-power intensive and lengthy ground rescue. The Vernon SAR-HWR program is the first volunteer SAR unit in Canada to deploy this technology and the only non-military personnel providing this service.
Although Smart describes the experience of embarking on these rescue missions as euphoric and riveting, he also alluded to an element of role reversal as he was stepping out of the helicopter for the first time. “Nothing can quite prepare you for stepping out of a helicopter and winching 200 feet down a cable. As I was leaving the helicopter, I was very aware of the fact that I was placing my life in someone else’s hands.”
Owned by Wildcat Helicopters in West Kelowna, the Bell 212 encompasses a full range of life saving medical equipment from ACLS/ATLS to rewarming. “The whole idea of the program is to bring the hospital to the patient, then transfer the patient to the hospital.” Smart cites there are many challenges one faces when providing acute care on a helicopter. “My work space is 4×3 feet (kneeling), which is a very challenging and confined space to provide medical care. Luckily, we have yet to face a situation with multiple victims.”
While the HWR program averages around 10 calls per year, Smart recalls a recent rescue mission this past December. “We got the call late in the afternoon of a snowmobiler unable to move to due to severe chest pain from a heart attack. We only had an hour of daylight left in a blizzard with -12 Celsius. We were able to fly to the remote mountainous scene, extract the patient and transfer to EHS in Vernon in just over an hour- a 100 km mission which would have taken up to 14 hours by ground. Our patient had an excellent outcome.” While no two rescue missions are the same, Smart cites common patterns leading to the need to be rescued. “Unfamiliarity with reading the terrain and lacking basic levels of preparedness and respect for mother nature often leads to disaster.”
When Smart is not in embarking on rescue missions and winching out of helicopters, you can find him doing anything and everything outdoors related from cycling and cross country skiing, to gardening and hiking. He is also a Director of the Vernon Doctor’s Hockey Tournament, where over 340 physicians, residents and medical students lace up every winter.