ROCK COUNTY -- Delavan Fire Chief Timothy O’Neill recalls the first time his department called on Mercyhealth’s MD-1 emergency field team.
"We had a 10-year-old child that was pinned on a stairwell, and she needed minor surgery to remove an object that was impaled in her," O’Neill said. "Only a doctor can do that."
The MD-1 team uses specially equipped Chevy Tahoes that transport physicians to the scene of an emergency at the request of EMS teams.
They don’t replace them in the field, but instead provide additional expertise, particularly in trauma cases.
The program currently serves Rock, Walworth and Winnebago counties, as well as other areas in northern Illinois.
As local volunteer emergency medical service departments are increasingly squeezed between growing complexity and demand on one side and staffing shortages on the other, this unique private-public partnership has become a lifesaver.
Taxpayers also benefit because neither the responding agencies or patients are billed for MD-1 services.
Now about 3 years old, the service has become an integral part of local EMS responses.
"It’s been a very good service. There are some residents who went into cardiac arrest who wouldn’t be walking around today if it wasn’t for the MD-1 program," O’Neill said.
Jay MacNeal, Mercyhealth EMS medical director, said the vehicles respond to various types of emergencies.
"They could respond to car accidents. They could respond to farm equipment extrications. They could be sent to assist a patient with a unique medical condition," MacNeal said. "Sometimes we will respond to a scene, and a paramedic will have everything taken care of, but we will stay to learn how they might handle a situation, so it helps us improve our program. Not only do we teach the EMTs and paramedics, but the EMTs and paramedics teach us."
Mercyhealth started the MD-1 program in Rock County in 2013 and expanded to Walworth County the following year. The program was then started in Winnebago County and northern Illinois in October 2015.
MacNeal said he developed the idea from a similar program that he worked with when he attended Yale University.
"When I interviewed with Mercy, I brought the idea with me," MacNeal said. "We’re unique in that most of these programs are used in large urban areas, and our program is mostly in rural areas working with community hospitals."
The MD-1 program includes four vehicles. Three of the vehicles are available 24 hours a day, and a fourth vehicle is used for special events and as a backup for when additional emergencies may occur.
The vehicles are equipped with extrication equipment, a defibrillator, triage kit, glidescope video intubation unit, mechanical CPR device, ultrasound equipment and public safety radios.
"We try to carry things that a typical field unit might not have," MacNeal said. "When we load a patient on a vehicle, we try to do things that would best treat them on their way to the hospital."
MacNeal said the vehicles can access areas that other emergency vehicles may not be able to reach.
"Most paramedics or EMS services have the proper equipment to get to an emergency, but sometimes we can use our four-wheel vehicles to get to an emergency before a paramedic," MacNeal said. "Sometimes a helicopter may not be able to get to an emergency during a blizzard, but an MD-1 vehicle can. Sometimes we can get to an emergency when another vehicle can’t because of weather."
MacNeal said patients are treated and taken to the nearest hospital or medical facility.
"We may take them to the nearest trauma center or local community hospital or cath(eterization) lab," MacNeal said. "If they need to go to a specialty hospital, we may go there. We try to match the right facility for the patient. If they don’t have a severe injury, we may take them to a medical facility closest to their home. People think that just because it’s a Mercy program, we only take people to a Mercy facility, but that’s not the case. We serve the entire community."
MacNeal estimates that the vehicles respond to about 40 calls a month.
"The doctors average a call every other day," MacNeal said. "Sometimes we may not get called to a scene, but a paramedic may call us for advice to treat a patient that may have a certain condition. We tell people we’re like a coach on a football team. We’re OK with sitting on the sidelines, but don’t leave us behind when you go to an away game."
Clinton Fire Chief John Rindfleisch said the Clinton Fire Protection District has received assistance from the MD-1 program numerous times.
"We’ve had to use (the program) multiple times," Rindfleisch said. "It’s a great asset to the county."
Rindfleisch said the program has assisted the department during traffic accidents and fires and has offered rehabilitation services to the firefighters.
"We recently had a search and rescue situation, and they assisted us with that," Rindfleisch said. "Usually, if there’s advanced level of care, that’s usually what we call them for. They supplement our services."
Interim Milton Fire Chief Chris Lukas said his department also has benefited from the program.
"We’ve asked for assistance from them, and we’ve received assistance from them several times," he said.
Lukas said the department usually has enough firefighters available to respond to an emergency, but sometimes the MD-1 physicians can provide additional care to patients.
"We haven’t had to use it as a substitute for personnel," Lukas said. "Basically, we have smaller vehicles that can get back in the woods. They bring a physician to the scene, and they can give patients treatment that they wouldn’t have received until they arrived to the emergency room. It’s a great benefit to the community. I’m glad we have it available to us."