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Follow the evacuation team in action

The Medical Centre's evacuation team is on hand 24 hours a day to rescue members in distress from far-flung locations across the globe. What follows is a real-life account of how the expert staff stepped in and successfully helped two family members in trouble.

Medical evacuation team member Elizabth Fortin JørgensenIn the Kamchatka peninsula in far north-eastern Russia, a father and his 28-year-old daughter are embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. They’ve been dropped deep in the wilderness by helicopter. From there they set off on snowmobiles trekking across the deserted, snowy landscape. Both are buzzing with excitement as they speed across the icy plains, enjoying the clear, crisp air. Suddenly, the man loses control and is hurled from his snowmobile. He lands awkwardly in a ditch on his back. A loud crack echoes painfully through the air.

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3am The call comes in to Bupa International’s emergency hotline in Copenhagen. A distraught young woman explains that her father, Mr Bernhard, is injured and in need of urgent help. The assistance co-ordinator (AC) who takes the call immediately gets the rescue under way, a chain of events that will involve people from across the globe.

On receiving the call the AC now initiates all the steps of the process that will result in Mr Bernhard receiving the treatment that he requires as quickly as possible. Normally this means determining the right location of treatment, and arranging all transport. Furthermore the necessary arrangements are to be made with the hospital, ensuring that neither Mr Bernhard nor his daughter, Annette, needs to worry about any practical issues.

The logistics are complicated. Kamchatka is 11 hours ahead of Denmark. There are language barriers to overcome – the most commonly spoken language in Kamchatka is Russian, but Mr Bernhard is French. The nature of his injury – a suspected broken back – means that moving him risks causing further damage, possibly even paralysis. Add to this his frantic wife in Paris, desperate to get in touch with her husband, and the situation becomes even more fraught.

4.54am Mr Bernhard’s daughter is pleased that Bupa International has contacted the company who organised their trip, and swiftly arranged helicopter transport for Mr. Bernhard and herself to the nearest large town in the area, Petropavlovsk. Contact is also made to the hospital in Petropavlovsk, ensuring that when Mr. Bernhard and Annette arrive, they will be admitted without any problems. Although they are keen to get back to Paris as soon as possible, the AC explains that the most important thing for now is to get Mr Bernhard examined by a doctor, in order to both stabilise his condition and to prepare him for further transport.

6.07am Annette makes a call to confirm that they have arrived at the hospital, and her father is being taken for x-rays. She is worried because his blood pressure is raised and he is obviously in a great deal of pain. The AC ensures that all details regarding the admission are correct, and makes arrangements for the x-ray results to be sent to the Emergency Centre as soon as they are available. In the meantime, he gets on with finding out more about the hospital facilities and investigating the options available for evacuating Mr Bernhard.

Annette waits anxiously with her father. With the help of their Russian guide, they are told that Mr Bernhard has fractured his third vertebra and should remain lying flat on his back for a month. She calls the AC who checks this with the doctor on duty and can confirm that this is correct procedure. The available data in the initial report is presented to the on duty doctor, so he can see exactly what condition Mr Bernhard is in and put together a treatment plan. As more detail is required, the AC contacts the hospital to have a full report faxed to Copenhagen.

7.55am In Copenhagen, the AC is coming to the end of his shift, and he updates all case details in order to secure a smooth handover to his replacement, ensuring that no details are lost in the transfer process. The case is now in the hands of Elizabeth, who is also an AC. When she receives the full medical report from the hospital in Petropavlovsk, it’s all in Russian. As the staff in the offices in Copenhagen between them are fluent in over 30 languages, Elizabeth quickly checks the staff database. She locates a colleague who reads Russian and is able to translate the report for her.

Within the hour Elizabeth receives the translated report, and Dr Jorgensen, the doctor on duty today, starts to determine the correct plan of action. In the case of back injuries this is critical in order to ensure that no additional damage occurs during transport. The condition of Mr Bernhard will determine whether an air ambulance is required, or if a commercial flight with a stretcher installed is sufficient.

In Copenhagen the AC staff has full access to a team of doctors, working around the clock, meaning the decisions made by the ACs will always include the opinion of a specialist clinician. Between them the Bupa doctors represent a number of specialist skills, ranging from air force aviation medicine to general surgery, subspecialities within surgery, and administrative and general medicine.

Elizabeth gets back in touch with Annette to inform her of the progress in the case, and is told that Mr Bernhard has left the hospital. He has been warned about the serious nature of his injury but refused to stay and has managed to get back to his hotel. He has been given painkillers and fitted with a back brace to limit movement, and is only interested in getting back to Paris as soon as possible.

9.38am While Dr Jorgensen evaluates the medical report Elizabeth looks into possible ways of flying Mr Bernhard home. The best option comes from the International Assistance Group (IAG), This organisation brings together independent assistance companies from across the world, who together forms the largest group of assistance companies in the world, forming a huge pool of assistance knowledge and capabilities. Each of the member companies offers local knowledge and resources so customers can be helped more efficiently. Dr Jorgensen evaluates that there is a need to evacuate Mr Bernhard, as he finds that the treatment offered in Petropavlovsk is not sufficient. The AC confirms that the Russian IAG member can arrange an air ambulance to take Mr Bernhard to Moscow and can also contact the hospital in Petropavlovsk to get a full diagnosis.

In Petropavlovsk, Annette is concerned about the painkillers her father has been given. The doctor in Petropavlovsk won’t change the medication and Annette asks Dr Jorgensen to speak directly with them. This is where the benefit of having access to inhouse specialist doctors is obvious, and after a tense, 40-minute conversation, the Russian doctor finally agrees to change the drug to one that has a lower risk of causing blood clots.

It quickly becomes clear that an air ambulance is out of the question as the pilot will need time to rest after flying into Petropavlovsk before he can fly out again to Paris. This could delay Mr Bernhard’s departure by several days. Annette is keen for her father to be flown straight home rather than receive treatment in Moscow. Elizabeth consults Dr Jorgensen who confirms Mr Bernhard is stable enough to travel by stretcher on a commercial flight back home, provided that there is an ambulance to transport him at each end, and a medical professional on board who can monitor his medication.

Elizabeth contacts Bupa’s travel agency, specialised in handling medical transports, who comes up with three possible bookings on commercial airlines in order to determine if a quicker option is available to get Mr Bernhard and Annette back home. Aeroflot has a flight that departs the following afternoon for Moscow and then on to Paris.

1.14am Annette receives a call from Copenhagen to tell her that she and her father will be on their way home within 24 hours. Elisabeth has arranged all details of the transport, including the necessary medical escort who can support Mr. Bernhard during the flight and administer the necessary medication. Unsurprisingly she is overjoyed and erupts into a stream of thanks for Elizabeth and everyone else who has helped. She apologises for being short-tempered at times during the phone conversations, something that the evacuation team are well used to when they deal with people who are in situations of acute stress.

With assistance as professional, efficient and personalised as this, it’s no surprise that such effusive thanks to the team are commonplace. And the service doesn’t end when the evacuation is complete – the ACs follow up every case they handle to ensure that there have been no further problems and to offer any additional help that is needed.

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It was later learned that Mr Bernhard had surgery done to his back after returning to Paris, and was back at home practising walking just three weeks after the accident happened. His wife also mentioned that her husband wouldn’t be venturing into the wilderness again any time soon.