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Philanthropy

Private donors help air ambulance service expand throughout Western Canada Add to ...

Since 1995, Doug and Susan Ramsay have watched the bright red air ambulance helicopter pass over their ranch just south of Calgary.

The Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society, better known as STARS, was transferring patients in critical condition from the nearby High River Hospital to larger facilities in Calgary. Sometimes, the helicopter would be responding to emergencies on the roads or in the wilderness. On a few occasions, friends of the Ramsay family were on board after accidents.

The couple is so touched by the service it performs that on Thursday, they will give STARS $2-million and become the non-profit organization’s largest single non-corporate donor.

“I always felt such sadness when it would fly over,” Ms. Ramsay said. “And now knowing what it does, I have great hope about the lives it has saved, and from knowing some of the lives that it saved.”

The donation will be earmarked for education and training programs. It comes as the 22-year-old organization is expanding its services beyond Alberta and eastern British Columbia. STARS generates 75 per cent of its budget from fundraising, including through sales of a popular calendar, and the rest is from the Alberta government.

On Wednesday, STARS signed a 10-year agreement worth about $10-million a year with the government of Manitoba. STARS supplied air ambulance services during that province’s floods in the past few years, which Health Minister Theresa Oswald said helped save 50 lives. STARS is also building bases in Regina and Saskatoon to provide its rotary-wing airborne intensive care services in Saskatchewan.

“It allows us to train, retrain, retrain and retrain our crews,” Dr. Greg Powell, STARS’ founder and chief executive officer, said of the donation. “Not only the new ones coming in, but to run repetitive cycles of things that are rarely seen in daily practice so that they stay at the top of their game regardless of the illness that they see.”

Dr. Powell helped conceive the rotary-wing air ambulance program in 1985 after officials in the medical community raised concerns that Alberta had a 50 per cent higher death rate due to trauma compared with other key Canadian trauma centres. More than 20,000 missions later, patients are getting care in the air, and to treatment on the ground more quickly.

STARS, which will soon have 11 helicopters, says it costs about $10-million a year to operate one helicopter base with a backup aircraft.

Despite the minimal government funding – or perhaps because of it – Dr. Powell said STARS has been able to use innovative technology such as mobile human patient simulators, onboard ultrasound technology and night vision goggles.

“When you’re part of a fully funded government program, it gets difficult to free up the dollars for those kind of innovations,” he said.

Still, when Mr. Ramsay got involved in the organization’s board of directors four years ago, he was shocked to learn how about the slight amount of government support.

Mr. Ramsay, who is co-founder of Calfrac Well Services Ltd., which has annual sales of about $1-billion through its specialized oilfield services, and his wife have focused their philanthropy on education. Last fall, they gave $3-million to SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary to help build a centre for petroleum engineering.

“We are very fortunate, so we thought, maybe, why can’t we try to advance STARS in the education side and maybe through our donation it might inspire people to donate to STARS,” Mr. Ramsay said.

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