Flight 2,087: Gundersen Air paramedic’s call to service goes beyond the sky

Paramedic Mike Ashbacher passed 2,000 flight mark; embracing several responsibilities in emergencies
Gundersen Air

Decorah, Iowa (WKBT) – Life can change in a second, and emergencies can happen at any time anywhere. Sometimes life and death can be separated by just a few minutes.  It can happen to anyone of us. In that moment of life and death, it all comes down to the details.

“The pilot will make the decision on whether we can accept the flight based on weather,” said Mike Ashbacher, a paramedic with Gundersen Air in Decorah. “We check our medications, we check out dates, we check to make sure all our equipment is functioning properly.”

Help can arrive in minutes. Ashbacher’s team responds to a variety of emergencies such as motor vehicle accidents and motorcycle accidents. They will also take patients with severe illness to places with the resources to help them.

Mike Ashbacher has flying experience that can challenge some Midwestern birds.

“My first flight I can tell you that I flew from La Crosse to Prairie Du Chein to Dubuque,” he said. “That’s been a few years back. I don’t remember what I did this morning, but I remember that.”

His time in the sky awards him no frequent flyer miles. It provides stories from his neighbors who have been at death’s doorstep.

“We’ve taken care of a lot of patients in this area that we know,” Ashbacher said. “In that patient’s eyes or in that family’s eyes. This is their worst time.”

His call to service doesn’t stop at the helicopter pad.

“Been living in Decorah almost my entire life,” he said.

At the Decorah Fire Department, he is known as Chief Ashbacher.

“He’s been here for 25-30 years,” said Jeff Ode, an engineer at the Decorah Fire Department.

Ashbacher is also a member of the tactical team as a medic for Winneshiek County and the city of Decorah. He works at the local hospital and when he’s not saving lives he’s helping shape them.

“I’ve two grown sons, two granddaughters,” Ashbacher said.

This year, a year marked by misfortune and COVID-19 is one that places Ashbacher in Gundersen’s history.

“I’ve done 2,086 patient flights,” Ashbacher said.

Two-thousand is a feat only three (including Ashbacher) Gundersen employees have done.

“He’s a very humble guy,” Ode said. “He doesn’t brag about his work. I found out about the 2,000th flight by the media not from him, and I see him all the time.”

He is passing down his experience to the next generation of flight medicine.

“It’ll be three years this month,” said Erin Cantrell, a flight nurse with Gundersen Air.

Cantrell doesn’t waste a second of his wisdom. She strives to leave a mark like Mike but understands what that number means.

“In some ways you sort of hope to get to that but then you don’t want to get to that, because it also means you’re taking care of somebody perhaps on the worst day of their life,” she said.

Ashbacher said his time in the sky is not his priority.

“Every patient I take care of I look at as the only patient I worry about,” he said. “I’m basically starting at one every time.”

Those 2,086 flights he said are owned by his work family and his home family.

“I’ve had some very good support from them over the years,” he said.

Not every trip has a happy ending, but his focus is giving any person on any given day their best chance.

“It makes it all worth what we do,” he said.

Every tally is a person with a family who loves them. Thursday marked flight 2,087, but for Ashbacher, his number is and always will be, one.

“You have to take care of the patient that’s in front of you,” he said.

He said his service is only possible due to the several hours given by flight mechanics and pilots. He said they make sure the helicopters are ready so his team can save lives every day.