GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Junji Sakai is a flight medic with Guardian Air and is in the business of saving lives.
Sakai has worked for the company since 2012 and is based out of Tuba City, where he works a 48-hour shift each week, before returning to Flagstaff.
With no direct correlation to seasonal accidents or emergencies, Sakai said it is difficult to judge how busy each shift will be.
"Sometimes its busy and we fly two to three long flights per day and sometimes we don't fly at all," he said.
Long flights are partially dependent on whether a patient needs to be transported to Flagstaff or if they will be taken to Phoenix.
On average Sakai said it takes around 35 minutes for the crew to fly from Tuba City to Flagstaff Medical Center (FMC) versus an hour and a half flight into Phoenix.
Although it is rare, occasionally the crew will fly in and out of Tusayan and the Grand Canyon. Typically they are called upon if a higher level of medical skills are required.
"Grand Canyon has the park service and they have their own helicopter," Sakai said. "They keep busy, especially in the summer, but they (usually) handle their own. If the patient is either critically injured or ill and ground transport is not appropriate, then we would get called."
In such cases, depending on the patient's location, Guardian will land either at the Grand Canyon Airport in Tusayan or at the helibase inside Grand Canyon National Park.
On March 8, Sakai and his partner, Flight Nurse Lindsay Almond received word that their skills would be needed for a situation at the Grand Canyon Airport.
They were placed on standby and told they would be responding to a call for a 73-year-old man who had gone into cardiac arrest while visiting the Grand Canyon.
"We got put on stand-by, we waited for a little bit and then dispatch sent us a message saying go ahead and launch," Sakai said. "The flight time I think was 30 minutes or so."
During the flight, Sakai and Almond prepared themselves for the care they were about to provide.
"We had already known it was a pulse less cardiac arrest," Sakai said. "Typically what we do is mentally prepare ourselves, make sure we know medication dosages, we look at our reference books...we also prepared some of the medications while in route to the Grand Canyon."
The patient was Ron Merle, who was visiting the Canyon with his wife and several family members visiting from out of state.
Upon their arrival, Sakai said he and Almond gave Merle several medications, including a medication known as a presser, which constricts the blood vessels in order to make more blood available for Ron's heart and vital organs, as opposed to sitting in his veins.
At the time of the heart attack Ron had no pre-existing heart conditions and lived an active lifestyle, according to his wife.
"He is a very healthy 73, very active," Mary Merle said later.
The Merles were on a one-night vacation and were playing cards in their room at the Maswik Lodge, when Ron went into cardiac arrest.
With the help of the national park's emergency response team, Guardian Air and a mysterious young man, who performed CPR before medical teams arrived on the scene, Ron survived.
It was later discovered that the mysterious young man, William Mai, who disappeared after paramedics arrived, was a 16-year-old tourist from Victoria, British Columbia.
He had been visiting the Canyon with his family and was able to respond immediately to Ron.
Sakai said the quick response by Mai was critical in saving Ron's life.
"The longer a person is in cardiac arrest, the poorer the outcome," Sakai said. "It absolutely helped, without bystander CPR none of these people survive. It's absolutely important that bystander CPR be done. Without him Mr. Merle would not have survived."
First responders transported Ron to the helipad at Grand Canyon Airport where Sakai and Almond met him.
"When we got to him, he (Ron) had a pulse," Sakai said. "He was moving his arms and legs around - slightly. He had another episode of cardiac arrest, in the back of the ambulance, while we were there. We did chest compressions for maybe two minutes, got a pulse back, got a breathing tube in and we flew to Flagstaff."
Upon arrival in Flagstaff, Ron was immediately taken into surgery and had a stent put in a major artery.
Ron was in ICU for a week and a half before being moved to a hospital room and released two weeks and one day after the initial heart attack.
"He made unbelievable progress, I believe everyone involved was surprised," Mary said.
While Ron was still recovering at FMC, Mary met three employees of Guardian Air in the hospital cafeteria. While they were not the crew who had helped save her husband's life, they told Mary they would pass on her gratitude.
"The next day the crew showed up in my husband's room," Mary said. "So we had an opportunity to thank them and they were surprised to see him so well. It was a big moment for all of us, a very emotional time."
"We had another transport where we ended up in that same unit he was in," Sakai said. "He was sitting up having lunch, with his wife along his side and we talked to them for a little bit. It was good to see them. He was doing very, very well."
According to Guardian, Sakai's actions went above and beyond the call of duty and demonstrate the dedication of its staff.
"We also want to know that if what we did was the right thing to do," Sakai said. "Every case is different, we work in such a diverse field with so many gray areas and we want to know how we could have done better."
Looking in on their patient's and checking with their physician helps give Sakai and other medical flight crews valuable feedback for things they can apply to future patients.
Today, Mary said Ron is doing very well.
Mai, the mysterious young hero, later received a heartfelt thank you from the Merles along with an "ECC Heartsaver Hero award" from the American Heart Association (AHA).
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