A woman who said her life was saved by Intermountain Life Flight talked about the determination of the man who fought through snow and wind to get her into a position where she could be rescued.
"He was the angel in neon," Christina Michel said.
When she was stranded on Mt. Timpanogos in a hard-to-reach area, 39-year-old Michel said she still continued praying until the carabiner was attached to her hoist jacket. She said time stood still as the man screwed it on.
Pilots, nurses, first responders, patients and leaders of Intermountain Health's two medical helicopter programs gathered Thursday at Intermountain Medical Center's helipad to celebrate each program's anniversary. Intermountain Life Flight reached its 45th anniversary and Classic Air Medical, which was acquired by Intermountain last year, reached its 35th.
Over the course of the two programs, almost 200,000 people have been aided or saved by flights.
Michel slipped on a patch of ice near the top of Mt. Timpanogos in May while hiking with a friend. She tried to get to safety but slipped again.
She called for help and did all she could to make her rescue as easy as she could, but while watching her rescuers try to get to her, she worried her situation was severe enough that it would be too risky to help her. Then she said she also thought, "There's no way this guy's going to let that happen."
Since her rescue, Michel said she has helped with trainings and learned how unique of a rescue it was: She was belly-down and the angle of the slope was unique, but she said the Intermountain Life Flight responders had the knowledge need to complete the rescue.
Rob Allen, CEO of Intermountain Health, said when they began their Life Flight program in 1978 — just three years after Intermountain was formed — using helicopters to transport patients was not very common.
"These teams have a rich, wonderful history," he said.
He said Intermountain Life Flight is the only civilian organization that has been certified for hoist flights, like Michel's rescue.
"It's really about the people, every person that we can touch and reach and help — that's what this does is add another connection where those needs may be," Allen said.
Allen pointed out individuals at the event who have worked with each company since its beginning.
With 31 bases and 56 aircraft, Allen said the two programs create the "largest not-for-profit aeromedical company in the country."
Tony Henderson, who runs both programs, said the two have different specialties. Intermountain Life Flight is able to help with specialized transportation, like neonatal care. Classic Air Medical, which was Henderson's family's business before it was purchased by Intermountain, specializes in transporting remote patients.
He said they have bases in areas where cities have fewer than 10,000 people and provide a safety net for people who are not able to quickly get to a hospital on their own.
Henderson said they also have bases in other rural areas in Puerto Rico and Haiti. About 70% of their flights are transporting patients from small hospitals to hospitals with the specialties the patients need. He thanked his employees who are often doing hard work in rural areas.
"This (celebration) was a great honor for them, too, because they really are what makes it happen, you know, out there in the trenches. I'm lucky to have all these amazing managers and teams," he said.
He said patients don't receive a bill for air ambulance services now, following new legislation. He said before, they collected only about 1% of the fees that insurance didn't pay. Now he said they still write off money they are not able to receive, but there is also a federal arbitration system to help settle disputes between it and insurance companies.
Henderson said it is expensive to have staff on call all of the time, but they are saving lives.
Jake Blackwelder, a medic with Classic Air Medical in Moab, shared his personal experience at the celebration. His 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, was flown by Classic Air Med after experiencing a seizure while returning from a family camping trip. He called his team, knowing that she might need a flight to the hospital.
"The comfort and peace of mind I got from talking to a familiar voice, who was calm and reassuring, was so incredibly helpful and relieving," Blackwelder said.
Classic Air Medical flew her from a small hospital in Montrose, Colorado, to Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City. There, she was able to get a diagnosis from a neurologist with childhood epilepsy, which she will hopefully grow out of as a teenager.
"To the people that showed up to our emergency, and all the folks in the communication center who worked on our behalf, we are so grateful for their time, compassion and empathy," he said.
Blackwelder said that day was one of the most frightening days of his life. He expressed gratitude to everywhere who helped and showed up for them that day, including Classic Air Medical and medical professionals at both hospitals.