How a devastating accident led to the N.W.T's new air ambulance service

A snowmobile accident last March left Mike Zorn severely injured, and far from a community or highway. The incident prompted the N.W.T.'s new air ambulance service, which will help people injured in remote areas.

Mike Zorn was seriously injured in a snowmobile accident near Namushka Lodge in March 2015

Mike Zorn on March 13, 2016, exactly one year after he was seriously injured in a snowmobile accident. It was Zorn's incident that led to the territory's new air ambulance service. (submitted)

Dan Hunter and his hockey teammates were out for their annual snowmobile trip last March at Namushka Lodge, when an accident left his team captain severely injured and far from a community or highway.

After a day of ice fishing, Hunter and his friends were heading back to the N.W.T. fishing lodge on their sleds, when their team captain, Mike Zorn, hit a series of snow drifts.

"His Ski-Doo was facing straight into the snow about 100 yards from him," says Hunter, who was first on the scene.

Dan Hunter spent over an hour on the phone with emergency personnel when his friend was seriously injured while snowmobiling out on the land. (submitted)

Hunter says Zorn was buried in the snow. After digging him out, Zorn's friends did some basic first aid, asking him to move his fingers and toes, and made sure he knew who he was.

"Right then and there we knew that something was seriously, seriously wrong. He's a very big man and he was in some serious pain.

"It was pretty devastating," Hunter says. "He just could not move, he couldn't breathe. He was having trouble breathing."

1 hour 14 minute call

The group knew Zorn needed to be medevaced out of there.

Hunter set off for the lodge, where he called the N.W.T.'s ambulance service and told them what happened.   

"I had to have been transferred at least six to eight times to different various departments, within the government, whether it was Stanton hospital, emergency, or the nurse practitioner, or back to the ambulance or the RCMP," he says. "I had to tell my story over and over again.

"I did look on the phone records and it took an hour and 14 minutes before I finally got confirmation that something was going to happen."

Great Slave Helicopters in Yellowknife was on standby with a chopper, but Zorn needed medical attention.

"The RCMP stepped up for us," Hunter says.

Though the RCMP aren't responsible for medical extractions, it called one of its medically trained constables who was home with his family.

"He came and ultimately, I believe, saved my friend's life," Hunter says.

Still recovering

Mike Zorn in hospital three days after a snowmobile accident left him with serious injuries. (submitted)

Zorn was seriously injured.

"He had 14 breaks all on one side, on his ribs, which led to a flailed chest and a collapsed lung. He had a ripped diaphragm. He had fluids in his body cavity and in his lung," Hunter says.

Zorn was immediately medevaced to an Edmonton hospital, where he stayed for more than three weeks.

"And even to this day ... he still has not returned to work," Hunter says.

"He's still at home trying to recover. It's been a long, long process."

'This is huge for the North'

This week, the N.W.T. announced a new emergency response service for medical extractions when a person is injured in remote regions of the territory — something Hunter helped push for.

"Our whole hockey team talked about it and we just really didn't want anyone to go through this again. It was devastating for a lot of people," he says.

"We're best friends, hockey teams are very close, and for Mike's family as well, we just wanted something in place where minutes, or even hours in our case, weren't wasted."

A group shot of Mike Zorn and Dan Hunter's hockey team on an annual snowmobiling trip. (submitted)

Hunter was told on the day of Zorn's accident that had it taken just seven more minutes to get the helicopter deployed, it would have been cancelled due to loss of sunlight — that makes him think of the time wasted on the phone, finding help.

"We were that close to losing my friend. I know if he was not picked up that day he would not have made it."

Hunter sent emails to local MLAs, and eventually met with Al Martin, president of ACCESS Air Ambulance and Air Tindi, whose aircraft will be involved in the new service.

"We both felt very strongly about the same thing, that something needed to get in place," Hunter says.

Now that it is, he says it's huge news.

"I'm very excited. This is great news for the North."

With files from The Trailbreaker