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November 12, 2009

St. Louis nurse leads effort to get EKGs in ambulances

By Michele Munz
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Outfitting St. Louis ambulances with machines that save precious minutes for heart attack patients would be one of Helen Sandkuhl's biggest accomplishments in her 36-year-career as an emergency room nurse — ranking with saving a newborn's life and comforting a scared family member.

Her campaign started three years ago, when St. Louis Fire Department chief of paramedics Monroe Yancie asked for her help in getting new electrocardiographs — known as EKGs — devices that measure heart rhythms. Sandkuhl is the director of emergency nursing at St. Louis University Hospital, where the paramedics transport a chunk of their patients.

The department's machines are antiquated, Yancie said. They break. The waves and intervals are fuzzy and difficult to read. Paramedics must call the emergency room with their best interpretation, which leaves doctors and nurses unable to fully prepare for a patient's arrival.

New ones would provide a more precise picture. They would transmit graphs directly to emergency staff and even the cardiologist's smart phone. The patient could bypass several steps in the busy emergency room and go straight to surgery, where a team would be ready, knowing exactly what part of the heart was suffering.

"Time is muscle," says Dr. Michael Lim, SLU Hospital's chief of cardiology. "A heart attack means that area of tissue is deprived of blood and nutrient. If it's not restored in a short period of time. That muscle will die."

The cost for new machines in each of the 13 ambulances and training to use them? About $325,000 — just too much for the cash-strapped department, Yancie said.

He found a sympathetic ear in Sandkuhl, 57, who worked at the former City Hospital, Homer G. Phillips Hospital in north St. Louis and St. Mary's Hospital in East St. Louis. She knows what it's like to work with limited resources.

"We have paramedics wanting to do the best job they can, and this will help them do it," she said.

The for-profit hospital couldn't raise the money. So Sandkuhl turned to the local chapter of the Missouri Emergency Nurses Association, of which she is now president. The chapter has raised small amounts of money for education efforts, but never anything like this. With the group's blessing, Sandkuhl joined forces with Lim and led the charge to get donors. They did not make much headway.

However, they kept searching, knowing the importance. More than 50 percent of the city's residents are African-Americans, who have a 25 percent higher death rate than whites when it comes to the three biggest killers — heart attack, cancer and stroke. Half of all stroke and heart attack patients are first treated by paramedics. All hospitals used by city paramedics, not just SLU, would benefit.

Then, "like a miracle," Sandkuhl said, they heard from Kelly Chase with the St. Louis Blues Alumni Association and owner of the St. Louis Bandits, a junior hockey league team. The groups wanted to donate the proceeds from alumni and Bandits games to be played Nov. 20. For various prices, fans can also play in a game, drive the Zamboni, even sing the national anthem.

Said Chase, "When we choose things to support through Blues Alumni and the St. Louis Bandits, we want to make sure that we are trying to do something to benefit as many people as we can in the community."

At every Blues home game the past month, Sandkuhl has staffed a booth, asking hockey fans to buy tickets to the event.

Yancie and his fellow paramedics appreciate her efforts: "Helen was the first one to take the bull by the horns and really try to help us out. She loves EMS, and she knows what's best for the community."

Copyright 2009 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.

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