For Minnesota rescue doctor, danger comes with the job

Demonstrating a harness
John Hick demonstrated the harness he uses for rescues and other emergency operations, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Hick is an associate emergency medical services medical director and emergency physician at Hennepin County Medical Center and deputy medical director for Minnesota Task Force 1, the state's emergency rescue team.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Dr. John Hick stood atop the 200-foot abandoned Minneapolis grain elevator. The height was unnerving, but a 20-year-old University of Minnesota student was badly injured far below and needed help.

Crews roped him up and lowered him in.

"Whenever you're dealing with a rescue, the mantra is risk a little to save a lot," said Hick, one of six doctors who work with Minnesota Task Force 1, the state's emergency rescue team. "There's going to be risks, but you have to make that a calculated risk, and when we're trying to save a life, we're going to try to minimize those risks."

Hick and the team weren't able to save Emily Roland, who'd been exploring the abandoned Bunge elevator in the Minneapolis Como neighborhood with two friends Saturday night. She'd fallen through some boards on the ninth floor and landed in a bin more than 30-feet deep and very difficult to access.

"Rescues are always an emotional roller coaster and it really all depends on the outcome. Unfortunately on Saturday, we ran out of time," Hick said. "Time is the enemy in bad trauma cases. It makes it very difficult for rescuers. "At the same time," he added, "we're very gratified to have had a lot of good outcomes."

Roped in
An emergency personnel member was pulled out of a corn bin in Farmington where a worker had become trapped earlier in the day, Feb. 4, 2010. Fire and rescue workers from around Farmington helped in the rescue attempt.
Courtesy of David Joles | Star Tribune 2010

The highly-trained rescue group carries out three to five complex and dangerous rescue operations each year. They respond to incidents as varied as a utility worker buried in a trench collapse on a street to a semitrailer crash that traps victims in the wreckage.

Its highest-profile work came during the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in 2007, where 127 victims were rescued within 90 minutes.

As one of the doctors on the task force that also includes firefighters, paramedics and police officers, Hick, 46, is able to provide emergency treatment like IVs or pain medication to victims in complicated rescue efforts.

The doctors with the task force all have backgrounds working in ambulance services. Hick got involved in ski patrol at the age of 15 and became certified as an emergency medical technician at 18.

Hick, who works at Hennepin County Medical Center, said he has always gravitated to treating people outside the hospital.

"What we deal with in the hospital is on our terms and our environment, what we deal with on the streets and houses and rescue situations is a lot more dictated by the environment," Hick said. "It's just a new and different set of circumstances to deal with and I think there's a subset of us that really enjoy that."

Hick said the camaraderie between task force members is largely responsible for their successes.

"I think most of the team members tend to be 'heat seekers' — that we like challenges and problem solving, and we enjoy working as part of a team and seek out those situations," Hick said in an interview a few days after the Bunge elevator rescue.

Each member, from firefighters trained in rescue to paramedics who can provide medical stabilization, are important to successful rescues, Hick said.

On the local level, many paramedics and firefighters respond to less complicated but no less dangerous situations every day, he added.

"I don't feel that my role is much different or deserving of attention than any other member of the team. It's a core component, but they all are," Hick said. "We just want to be a part of the team, do our job when needed, and fade into the background."

Training exercise
A Minnesota Task Force 1 member practiced a typical stokes litter lift from the bottom of an embankment as part of a training exercise, May 7, 2011.
Courtesy of the Edina Fire Department

Minnesota Task Force 1 was formed in 1999 after state agencies identified the difficulty rescuers had in rescue operations at collapsed structures.

It's made up for about 100 firefighters, police officers and medical personnel. Each member receives an initial three weeks of training as collapse structure technicians and have a specialty that could include rigging, structural engineering, hazmat and rescue, said longtime task force member and Bloomington Fire Chief Ulie Seal.

The team led by the Minneapolis Fire Department is the state's "heavy" team, responding to incidents where more equipment is needed to safely rescue victims, Seal said.

They carry jack hammers, saws, hydraulic tools and other equipment that can help get victims safely out from crash wreckage or collapsed buildings. It runs on a modest budget, $500,000 this year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Hick couldn't talk about Roland's exact injuries or treatment due to privacy issues. But he said he and the rescue team weighed the immediate need to provide medical care against the dangerous conditions in the dilapidated grain elevator.

After a brief discussion at the top, the entire crew made the decision to lower Hick down.

"When we're trying to figure out what's going on with the victim, the best thing we can do is talk to them," he said. "When that's not possible then you need to get down there as quickly as possible to provide a little assessment, check a pulse and blood pressure, check their breathing, see what injuries you're dealing with."

In Roland's case, Hick was able to get her into an immobilizing device called a half back to lift her to an area where she could receive better treatment, but rescuers then faced the challenge of bringing her down nine flights of narrow stairs.

In all, the rescue took two hours, which Hick said is pretty quick for this type of incident.

Despite the rescue team's efforts, Minneapolis Fire Department officials said Roland went into cardiac arrest and later died at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Many of the rescues the team attempts involve people who are taking risks, whether it's urban explorers in abandoned buildings or a construction worker failing to shore up the trench they're working in.

"It only takes a couple seconds to fall, and it's going to take us hours to get us in a position of safety to be able to respond to you and get you taken care of," Hick said. "Think twice with heights and with depth — you can put yourself at a whole lot of risk very quickly."

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News