Is There a Doctor on Board? Neurologist Provides Emergency Medical Care After Helicopter Crash
It was a trip that Konstantin Balashov, professor of neurology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, was planning for months.
He was recently travelling to Kyoto, Japan, and then to Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia, the second largest concentration of geysers in the world, famous for active volcanoes, wild nature and salmon fishing. An experienced hiker and traveler, Balashov believed that, “nothing is better than taking a journey to the most remote and beautiful places in the world.”
Never, however, did Balashov think that his medical skills would be needed while he was aboard a helicopter taking him and 22 other passengers to the Valley of Geysers and then to a local fishing resort in Kamchatka.
“The guide promised us a short lunch break followed by geothermal bathing or fishing in the river well known for king salmon and arctic char,” said Balashov. “Nobody was thinking about a possible emergency and just enjoyed the magnificent views of volcanoes and rivers from a window of our helicopter.”
But on that beautiful summer day, something went wrong and the helicopter had a crash landing, tossing 21 of 23 passengers on board to the back of the helicopter and injuring several. The helicopter tail and its tail propeller were damaged. The helicopter stopped spinning and bouncing from the ground only when the main propeller was cut off by trees surrounding the landing pad, he said.
This is when Balashov’s emergency medical training kicked in. Once the passengers got off the helicopter, he began to examine them for injuries. One person experienced a forehead injury and complained of neck pain. Balashov suspected cervical fracture -- later confirmed in the hospital -- and immobilized the patient on a big piece of plywood he was able to find in the local house and instructed the patient not to move.
“If she wasn’t immobilized, she would have had a worse outcome and possibly even a spinal cord compression with permanent neurological disability,” he said.
Another passenger who was hit by an object during the landing and appeared to have a deep dent in his leg complained of pain. Suspecting a bone fracture, Balashov used a saw to make a wooden plank to immobilize the man’s leg. The passenger was later diagnosed with a tibial fracture.
The third injured passenger suffered a deep skin and muscle laceration of his thigh and was bleeding. The doctor applied direct pressure on the wound with a piece of gauze until the bleeding was stopped.
Several other passengers and a helicopter pilot had surface skin injuries. Balashov used antiseptics and sterile gauze to clean and cover the damaged areas.
An hour and a half after the crash, a medical helicopter arrived and transported the injured passengers to the hospital. The remaining tourists waited another two hours for a new helicopter to arrive, during which time Balashov grabbed a fishing rod and enjoyed the scenery of the river valley surrounded by volcanoes.
Would the crash stop him from the next helicopter ride?
“There’s a chance of accidents no matter what you do, but it’s worth taking the risk to visit the most unique places in the world,” Balashov said.