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Federal help coming to upgrade Life Link III base in Willmar

— There is no record kept of how many lives they save each year, but consider this:

In each of the past two years, the pilots and medical crews with the Life Link III emergency medical air transport base in Willmar responded to 800 emergency calls.

“We’re invited to everybody’s worst nightmare,” said Josh Howell, CEO of Life Link III, as he and staff members of the Willmar base walked with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar from the crew’s quarters at the Willmar Municipal Airport to the hangar holding the Life Link III Bell 407 helicopter.

The senator was on site to see how the Willmar base will be upgraded to continue its life-saving missions well into the future. The senator is responsible for a newly awarded, $1.5 million federal allocation to Life Link III for the Willmar base.

With the funding, Life Link III intends to break ground next spring and build a new living quarters with training facilities for crew members at the Willmar airport. It will include an attached hangar to hold a helicopter, putting it and crew all all under one roof.

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U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, left, speaks with Willmar Mayor Doug Reese and others during a visit Wednesday, April 24, 2024, to the Life Link III facilities at Willmar Municipal Airport.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Staffed 24/7, Life Link III crew members currently stay in a trailer moved to the Willmar airport from Hutchinson in 2013, when this base first opened. It’s a 400-yard sprint from the living quarters to the helicopter when the emergency calls come.

The distance between crew quarters and the helicopter may not seem great, but seconds count when the calls for help arrive. The Willmar base response time is slower than others due to the separation.

During the winter, the helicopter is kept inside the hangar modified for its winter storage. It’s kept outside in warm weather.

As for the living quarters: Crew members “have been extraordinarily patient with us” on plans to improve the cramped living quarters, Howell told Klobuchar. Crew members slept on cots when the base first opened.

The federal funding for the Willmar base means that Life Link III has more opportunities to devote resources to other needs, Jeremiah Gleitz, clinic manager, pointed out during the senator’s visit.

Life Link III is a

representing about 80 hospitals. CentraCare, which includes Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, is among them.

Life Link III operates 12 medical air bases, nine in Minnesota and three in Wisconsin. Each Minnesota base serves an average of a 4,000-square-mile area and more than 300,000 residents.

Moving the Hutchinson base to Willmar has helped the system better serve a large swath of west central and southwestern Minnesota, according to Howell.

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Pilot Aaron Kinder pulls the Life Link III medical transport helicopter out of the hangar at Willmar Municipal Airport during a visit from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

At the Willmar base, about 80 percent of each year’s calls are for hospital-to-hospital transport, and the other 20 percent are for transports from the sites of car crashes and other calamities.

State Sen. Andrew Lang, a Life Link III pilot in Willmar, told Sen. Klobuchar that he has witnessed, over and over again, the medical staff on board the helicopter revive and save patients. I “see it every day,” he said.

Sarah Wold, a nurse with the Willmar base, said the emergency calls can be from almost any location in the rural region. The Willmar base is the only medical helicopter between here and Aberdeen, South Dakota, she pointed out.

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Life Link III Executive Director of Philanthropy and Development Ryan Stauff, left, speaks with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, center, as she visits the Life Link III base at the Willmar Municipal Airport on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The Willmar base includes a staff of four pilots, five nurses and five medics. “It’s 24/7,” said Howell. “No idea when an emergency will occur. We have to be ready all the time.”

Life Link III has seen steady growth in demand for the air transports, he said. Hospital-to-hospital calls can be for anything from transporting a newborn infant with emergency needs to a larger hospital with specialized care to transporting an elderly cardiac patient for the same purpose.

The Willmar crew makes most of its transports to medical facilities in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, as well as Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Life Link III’s CEO emphasized that the nonprofit intends to continue its Willmar-based operations well into the future.

“We’re committed to this community. We have great relationships here,” he said in reference to the support the organization has seen here.

“The city of Willmar is very pleased to have this facility here,” said Willmar Mayor Doug Reese as he joined the Life Link III representatives in thanking the senator for the federal support.

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Life Link III nurse Sarah Wold, right, speaks to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar about the medical helicopter they have on site at Willmar Municipal Airport during a visit on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

Macy Moore / West Central Tribune