Canadian Coast Guard carries out tricky medevac off Nunavut
“It’s very tricky, very dangerous”
It wasn’t a relaxing evening for members of the Canadian Coast Guard on Aug. 10.
Early in the day, a worst-case situation developed on board the shipping vessel, the Zélada Desgagnés of Nunavut Sealift and Supply Inc., when a crew member experienced violent stomach pains.
The ship, 370 kilometres northeast of Iqaluit in Davis Strait near the opening of Cumberland Sound, was headed south from Cape Dyer when a doctor on board determined the crew member’s situation was urgent enough to call for immediate help.
That’s when the nearest Coast Guard icebreaker, the Des Groseilliers, received the call. At 9:30 a.m., and a little over 220 km away from the ship, the Des Groseilliers trekked towards a rendezvous point where, at 7 p.m., it ran into unfavourable conditions.
“The weather by the water when we reached the ship wasn’t so good, mostly foggy,” said Denis Coulombe, the captain of the Des Groseilliers. Visibility was less than about a kilometre.
That meant dealing with the situation was going to be tough, as the crew had to transport the patient onto the rescue vessel by an inflatable rescue craft.
A Hercules aircraft sent from Nova Scotia helped by scattering flares on the water so the crew could navigate back to the Des Groseilliers safely with the patient.
Then, the wait was on for the nearest Coast Guard helicopter to come to the rescue.
A Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter, departing from the 103 Squadron of Gander in Newfoundland, met the rescue vessel a little after midnight, where a “rescue basket recovery method” was used to hoist the patient up to helicopter.
From there, the helicopter landed in Iqaluit and the patient was taken to hospital, and subsequently back home to Montreal where his condition is said to be stable.
“Dealing with the Arctic is challenging to say the least, but they did it,” said Mike Bonin, a public affairs officer with Canadian Forces Base at Halifax.
“All [rescue missions] are risky when you’re talking about pitch and rolling, people on decks, helicopters that are trying to fight the wind and the ship moving to have someone hoisted into it,” he said. “It’s very tricky, very dangerous.”
Coulombe shrugged off the risk factor, saying his crew is always ready for a challenge and practice for it regularly, calling the situation “standard.” The biggest challenge, he said, was getting there.
“The most difficult thing to do [during a] mission is to be as quick as possible. That priority is always in mind,” Coulombe said.
For NSSI manager Waguih Rayes, it’s another sigh of relief after a tough shipping season for the Zélada Desgagnés: the ship was damaged by an unusual amount of ice trapped in Frobisher Bay last month while being escorted into Iqaluit by the Coast Guard.
“This year with all the bad luck with ice, weather, and medical evacuation — we’ve got more than our share, and hopefully it’s going to slow down a little,” Rayes said.
“I can’t remember the last time it happened, someone getting sick on board,” he said.
“That’s one of the things that worry us because we understand very well [the] conditions of being on the ship up in the north. You don’t have a hospital next door.”
But he had nothing but praise for the efforts of the Coast Guard.
“Certainly it’s much appreciated. When we talk about their mandate, whether it’s icebreaking, search and rescue, you can tell these guys are doing a good job in my personal opinion,” Rayes said.