SARANAC LAKE - Janice D. Washburn considers herself lucky to be alive.
It was four years ago when the now 55-year-old Keeseville resident was returning to work from her lunch break and noticed something wasn't quite right.
"I started to feel dizzy," Washburn recalled. "I thought I was having a stroke."
Though her memory of that day is still fuzzy, Washburn said she remembers being taken by ambulance to CVPH Medical Center, just minutes away from her office. Upon further evaluation, it was found she had a ruptured brain aneurysm and doctors immediately ordered her to be airlifted to Fletcher Allen Healthcare in Burlington, Vt. - a trip that would have taken much longer by ambulance, said Washburn.
"I only suffered mild disabilities because of how quickly they got me to Burlington," she said.
Though she lost hearing in one ear and occasionally suffers from dizziness, improper balance and short-term memory loss, Washburn said her condition could have been a lot worse if not for North Country Life Flight, the nonprofit medevac service which flew her to Fletcher Allen.
"My head was filling up with blood. If I would have had to ride by ambulance all the way [to Burlington], there would've been even more damage," Washburn said. "My husband and I would even say Life Flight saved my life."
About a year after her incident - a year spent recovering from her aneurysm - Washburn was reviewing her medical bills from that time and realized something was missing.
"I started getting ambulance bills but I noticed there was no bill for the helicopter," she said.
Upon further research, Washburn learned North Country Life Flight is an organization which provides its services at no cost to its patients.
"That was just astounding to me," she said.
Washburn, feeling compelled to help North Country Life Flight continue its mission, then began volunteering her services to help raise funding for the organization.
"I felt that I could make a difference," she said.
Most recently, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of North Country Life Flight's founding, Washburn levied a challenge to her fellow community members to raise $20,000. It's a challenge she hopes will both raise money and awareness for all the organizations does.
"I feel that not many people really know a lot about Life Flight," she said. "They may see the helicopter, but not know what they really do until, like me, they need their services."
Mary Jane Connors, president and chief executive officer of North Country Life Flight, said she was more than pleased to learn of Washburn's goal.
"I think it's great what she's doing," said Connors. "Since she was helped by Life Flight, she's made it her role to pay it forward so it will be here for the next person and so they won't have to worry about the cost either."
North Country Life Flight utilizes helicopters from the New York State Police aviation unit in its mission, explained Connors. The main expenses for which North Country Life Flight is responsible - an amount that fluctuates year after year depending on the number of people it serves - are providing medical equipment, medications and a combination of paid and volunteer medical personnel who are nationally-certified.
In order to do this, North Country Life Flight relies on support it receives through fundraisers and occasional grant funding. However, the medevac service mainly relies on donations from the community at large, said Connors.
"Our largest funding is from individual donations," she said. "In fact, that's what's enabled us to be free for so long."
North Country Life Flight is the only nonprofit medevac service in the area, explained Connors, serving Clinton, Essex, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Warren, Washington, Hamilton, Herkimer and portions of Jefferson and Lewis counties. The second closest medevac services for the region fly out of Albany and Syracuse and are commercial services, charging patients roughly $20,000 per flight or more.
"North Country Life Flight is a unique organization," said Chuck Pandolph, chief flight nurse for North Country Life Flight. "It's very altruistic in its mission in that we don't fly for money. We fly because there's a need."
Without having North Country Life Flight centrally-located at Saranac Lake's Adirondack Regional Airport, response times to pre-hospital emergencies and inter-facility transfers would increase significantly, Pandolph said. And, in a service where every minute counts, that could literally mean the difference between life and death.
"And, nobody gets a bill, which is a wonderful thing," said Washburn. "That's why community support is really important."
Those interested in making a contribution to North Country Life Flight may do so by calling 891-6853 or sending donations in care of the organization to 49 Helms-Mueller Road, P.O. Box 994, Saranac Lake N.Y. 12983. Donations may also be arranged through the United Way of Clinton and Essex Counties Inc. by calling 563-0028.
More information about North Country Life Flight may be found on their Web site, www.northcountrylifeflight.org