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Ambulance initiative has goal of better outcomes for heart attacks

WILLMAR -- In 90 minutes, the Willmar Ambulance Service can respond to someone having a heart attack, assess the patient, arrive at Rice Memorial Hospital's emergency room, get the patient on board a helicopter and into a cardiac catheterization lab in St. Cloud or the Twin Cities.

Officials hope to shave that time even closer with a new countywide initiative called "Saving Time and Saving Lives."

"It means better outcomes for patients," said Brad Hanson, operations manager of the Willmar Ambulance Service.

The initiative is receiving a major financial and public awareness boost this weekend from the Rice Health Foundation, which has selected it as the recipient of funds raised at the foundation's annual benefit.

The holiday gala on Friday and Saturday is the hospital foundation's single largest fundraiser of the year. Last year's event netted more than $70,000 for a new anesthesia service for children.

Heart-related emergencies loom large on the roster of most ambulance services. At least 60 percent of the 2,300-plus calls the Willmar Ambulance Service receives each year are for cardiac cases, Hanson said.

A speedy response might mean the difference between life and death, disability and normal function, he said.

"Time is muscle," he said. "The quicker we can treat, the more chance of having a normal life afterward."

The Saving Lives initiative targets a particular category of heart attack known as STEMI, or ST elevation myocardial infarction. This is the most severe form of heart attack. It's caused by blockage in a coronary artery and can lead to irreversible damage of the heart muscle if it's not promptly diagnosed and treated by opening the blocked artery.

Willmar Ambulance paramedics already get the vast majority of these patients to a cardiac catheterization within 90 minutes, considered the gold standard.

But there's a continual effort to become better, Hanson said.

Several years ago the ambulance service acquired 12-lead cardiac monitors, giving paramedics precise and immediate information -- even before arriving in the emergency room -- about what's happening to the patient's heart.

What has been missing, said Hanson, is the ability to transmit EKG readings to the emergency room, where they can be viewed in real time by a physician who can then determine the type and severity of a heart attack and launch the chain of events leading to cardiac catheterization.

"We're trying to shave seconds off," Hanson said. "Early intervention -- pre-hospital intervention -- would speed up this process."

The money that's raised by the Rice Health Foundation this weekend will be spent on software for transmitting EKG data. It'll also make it possible for ambulance services in Atwater, Lake Lillian, New London, Raymond and Sunburg to join the initiative, if they choose, and cover the cost of the additional equipment.

"We can be advancing care even further by giving that same opportunity to everyone in the county," Hanson said.

The Raymond Ambulance recently bought a 12-lead defibrillator, and training has begun with the Raymond and New London ambulance crews, he said.

"We've already started the process. The key thing is making sure we have the equipment first," he said. "We've been looking at this for awhile. We finally have the opportunity to get the dollars to make it happen."