Tag Archives: emergency

A Tragic Afternoon at the Reno Air Races

Editor’s Note: Exactly two months ago, U.S. HealthWorks doctor Anne Coatney was thrust into a tragic situation at the most unexpected time. Her story and how she handled it follows.

This sun-drenched afternoon in Reno, Nevada, was supposed to be the start of another memorable weekend for Anne Coatney. A big fan of aeronautics, she was back in a familiar place, her eyes transfixed on the sky as she sat in Box 68 at the annual Reno Air Races.

But for Coatney, a doctor for U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group in Seattle, the day turned tragic as a plane crashed into the viewing stands.

That Friday, Sept. 16, as Dr. Coatney attentively gazed up at the sky during the featured Unlimited Race, fear engulfed the tens of thousands of spectators as a vintage World War II-era fighter plane, traveling in excess of 450 mph, careened out of control.

'Taxi' photo (c) 2006, Dylan Ashe - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
For a moment, it appeared to be headed right for the very box that Dr. Coatney occupied with 13 friends and acquaintances.

“Practically everyone hit the deck around me, but I just stood up and watched it,” recalls Dr. Coatney. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I may die!’ Everyone was fearful for their life.”

There was little advance warning when the modified vintage airplane slammed into the tarmac at Reno-Stead Airport, resulting in the worse accident – 11 deaths, 74 injured – in the history of American air race events. Before this year’s disaster, 18 pilots had lost their lives at the Reno Air Races since 1972, but never a spectator.

The plane piloted by Jimmy Leeward crashed near the grandstands around 50 yards away.

A doctor with 19 years of emergency medical treatment experience, Dr. Coatney took a quick look around her immediate area, then sprinted straight for the crash scene.

As she rushed to the accident location, in her path were debris from the plane, and several dead bodies, including a person in a wheel chair, but she remained focused on getting to those she could still help.

“I was running toward the crash. Your adrenaline takes over and you just react on instinct. I didn’t know I could run that fast,” Dr. Coatney said. “I immediately was looking for someone in charge and, luckily, I found him quickly. I told him I was an emergency room doctor and he told me to go to the red zone, where the most critically injured people were being taken.”

The first person Dr. Coatney encountered was a 54-year-old man who was in mild shock. His right arm was severed at the elbow and he had an open skull fracture. Because she had no medical equipment, soothing words and makeshift treatment were all Dr. Coatney could immediately provide.

“All I had were my hands,” she said.

She kept those hands busy, trying to stop the flow of blood while keeping the man calm and taking some vitals with the aid of her watch. For bandages, Coatney used cloth given to her by helpful spectators who were cutting up nearby curtains from the box seats. Eventually she managed to stop the man’s bleeding in several places.

After helping load the man into a helicopter, she was off to the next injured person, a woman who had two fractured legs, open wounds, internal bleeding, and was in Level 2 shock. Dr. Coatney later treated a 29-year-old woman who had problems breathing due to shrapnel sticking out of her chest. Her leg was fractured and she had a collapsed lung.

Exhausted and back at her hotel that evening, Coatney called the hospital and checked on all five patients she had treated.

Dr. Coatney said her three years of residency at an emergency department in downtown Detroit, where caring for 20 gun-shot wound patients a night was not unusual, helped prepare her for Reno.

“I have learned how to remain objective and just do what I was trained to do,” Dr. Coatney said. “I thank God I had such good emergency training from my ER director in Detroit. It helped me be ready for a disaster like this one.”

Dr. Coatney has been coming to the Reno show for 19 straight years. It was quite an ordeal, but Coatney insists that she will be back in Reno next year and sitting in Box 68 once again.

“When you look back on what happened, you just think that you were lucky to live through it,” Dr. Coatney said. “It makes you look at things differently and you think that every day is a gift. It was a life-changing moment. But I’m absolutely coming back. I’ve gotten to know so many people that come to Reno every year and I’m part of the aviation community.”

What Are The Odds? Injured Motorcyclist is Beneficiary of Happy Coincidence

Dr. Andy Parker, vice president of U.S. HealthWorks, was going home to Seattle after a relaxing long weekend at his cabin in British Columbia. Heading south on Highway 1, Dr. Parker and his wife, Dawn, were making good time through the canyon highway as the midday sun was beating down on their pickup truck. As they drove through the mountainous terrain in BC, they admired the gorgeous scenery and could easily see why this highway is a favorite for motorcyclists, especially on warm summer days.

A short time after they passed through Lytton, they noticed a person sitting by the side of the highway. Andy kept driving, thinking nothing of it, but Dawn caught a glimpse of something that wasn’t right – a person in a muddy ditch off the shoulder of the road. She told Andy and he pulled over and made a U-turn when the road was clear.

Andy parked the truck and went into the ditch to find a motorcyclist who had missed a turn, dropped off an abrupt shoulder and crashed his bike in the mud. The biker, Tom Aitken, was conscious, but in a lot of pain. Dr. Parker had prior experience as an emergency room doctor, and was trained in Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS), which is recognized as the standard of care for initial assessment in trauma cases. He rapidly did a clinical survey on the injured biker. Dr. Parker determined there were no life-threatening injuries; however, Tom’s right leg was fractured with his right foot rotated 180 degrees, completely backwards. 

With no cell reception in this remote area, Tom’s motorcycling companion rode off to find a place to call 911 for an ambulance. Meanwhile, Dr. Parker started work on stabilizing the patient. As he did so, he heard a familiar voice above him say “Hey Andy, what are you doing down in a ditch?” It was Dr. Steve Sorsby, regional medical director and president of U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group of Washington – another physician. Tom’s unlucky day had taken a turn for the better – he had not one, but two, physicians to help him.

By coincidence, Dr. Sorsby, an avid motorcyclist, was on vacation and happened to be riding north on Highway 1 with his son, Jason. They were making a much-anticipated ride to see the remote coastal town of Hyder, Alaska. Both were very excited as it was their first time to this popular stretch of road for motorcyclists.

Seeing the accident scene, Dr. Sorsby stopped to see if his help was needed. “I couldn’t believe when I looked down into the ditch and saw Dr. Parker in the mud, performing a trauma assessment!” he said afterwards. “What were the chances?”

“Get down here and help me with Tom,” Dr. Parker called, and Dr. Sorsby willingly climbed down into the muddy ditch to render assistance. The two U.S. HealthWorks doctors proceeded to stabilize the injured Tom and were soon joined by an off-duty EMT from the Vancouver area. The RCMP (Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police) arrived, closed the highway, and, together, all waited for the ambulance.

But time was critical for Tom. The physicians were unable to assess if there was any blood supply to the lower leg as his heavy riding boot was still on and they had no way of cutting it off without causing Tom further excruciating pain. The doctors needed to put the bones back in place and rotate the foot back into its normal position. With each passing moment, Tom’s leg was in greater danger of sustaining permanent damage.

The ambulance finally arrived, but they didn’t have any IV morphine. They did, however, have nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”). Lacking any other analgesic options to help reduce the fracture pain, the physicians determined they would use the nitrous oxide while they rotated Tom’s foot back into a normal position.

Tom was instructed to deeply breathe in the gas through a face mask, and his leg was successfully rotated into a normal position. As his pain eased, his riding boot, pant leg, and sock were cut off to evaluate the injured area. It was an open fracture, and part of one lower leg bone had been protruding through the skin just above the boot until the fracture was reduced and the leg was rotated back to its normal alignment. The doctors proceeded to dress the wound and get the leg splinted. Tom was placed on a backboard with a cervical collar in place and loaded onto the waiting ambulance, which transported him to Lytton, where he was airlifted to a hospital.

The RCMP re-opened the highway and Drs. Sorsby and Parker went their respective ways, delayed a bit, but certainly for a good cause.

Tom required two operations to pin the leg, but his leg was saved. Both Tom and his wife expressed many thanks to all the Good Samaritans who helped him in his time of need.

P.S. If there are any math wizards out there, we would really like to know the odds of a motorcyclist getting help after a crash by not one, but two, physicians who were first and second on the scene of a remote crash site; and who, coincidentally, are colleagues in the same medical group and have known one another for years! The odds must be astronomical….. Maybe Tom should buy a lottery ticket!


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