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Bee stings, sprained ankles and indigestion: inside the State Fair's medical services

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Aaron Burnett and Matt Simpson at the fair
Aaron Burnett, assistant medical director at Regions Hospital, left, and Matt Simpson, assistant fire chief at the St. Paul Fire Department, pose for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

From hangnails to heart attacks, the doctors, nurses and paramedics at the Minnesota State Fair see it all. 

More than 2 million people come through the gates every year, making medical care as inevitable as Pronto pups and reaching the bottom of the Giant Slide. But the medical staff at the fair say they're still focused on fun.

During the State Fair, Dr. Aaron Burnett works inside a low-slung, grey building tucked between the Sizzler ride on the Midway and the food and retail stands on the West End. He spends the rest of the year at Regions Hospital, which has provided medical services at the fair for about a decade.

Two aid stations handle the bulk of the work, the main one on the West End and another near the 4-H building. Most of the 4,300 patients they usually see over the course of the fair walk in, although there are ambulances and utility vehicles that can provide care anywhere on the grounds. 

"The care we provide is really designed to keep people at the State Fair, as long as it's safe to do so," Burnett said. Fair medics don't provide routine care or prescriptions, "But we have all the things necessary to treat some of those acute illnesses and injuries you might see at the fair, things like, headaches and blisters, asthma attacks. We also have the equipment necessary to treat some of those serious things." 

But Burnett said those are rare, typically sprained ankles and bee stings. 

"Believe it or not, we see a lot of indigestion out at the fair," Burnett said.

Even if treatment isn't appropriate right on the fairgrounds, medical staff know people may be reluctant to leave. Regions has a shuttle to its hospital in St. Paul, to provide more intensive care for folks who don't need an ambulance, but, for instance, may have taken a Park and Ride bus to get to the fair, and may be hours away from home or another ride.

Burnett suspects some fairgoers even tempt medical fate. There have been instances of pregnant women using fair-walking to spur labor along, although medical staff haven't had to deliver a baby to date.

"You know there are a lot of fun things that happen at the fair that aren't always the most healthy. So we do see some people that are only one cheese curd away from a cardiac event," Burnett said.

And those events do happen. Matt Simpson, the assistant fire chief who is in charge of emergency medical services for the city of St. Paul, and the State Fair, saw a number of them in 2007. 

"There were five cardiac arrests and the successful resuscitations of those people are due in large part to how fast we get there, what skill level we're putting on these scenes, and what we can do, once we get to these patients, to transport them to the hospitals," Simpson said.

Paramedics use two ATV utility vehicles to help them get through the throngs. There are two advance life support ambulances on hand, with one more added on Senior Discount Day.

Working between 30 and 50 emergency medical calls a day, nearly 100 St. Paul paramedics work at the Falcon Heights location over the course of the fair's 12-day run. They've meticulously mapped out the grounds, so they know where to find people when they call, sometimes without a lot of information about exactly where they are.

Paramedics also have to respond quickly even on the most crowded State Fair days, but Simpson said there's even an upside to that — it's a recruitment opportunity.

"It's a great time to get the interest of maybe the young people that don't know maybe what the department's all about, and being an EMT or a paramedic," Simpson said. "It's nice to be recruiting the young future firefighters in this environment where everybody's here to have a good time."