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Chief Medical Officer offers best of both worlds

08.04.2014 Operations Medical

The scene: a rural Alberta hospital in the early 1990s. A patient desperately needs an airway tube inserted to protect his breathing. Complicating factors have stymied the local doctor, and he’s requested STARS to come and assist. The STARS nurse and paramedic arrive and attempt to intubate the patient, but encounter similar challenges.

The flight paramedic turns to the doctor and says: “This is a really challenging airway. I’d like the pilot to give it a try.”

It sounds like the setup to a sitcom episode, but Dr. JN Armstrong, newly appointed chief medical officer for STARS, laughs as he recounts the story.

He is quick to reassure that this was not standard operating procedure. Rather, his unique background as an anesthesiologist in addition to being a pilot meant he was just as comfortable intubating the patient as he was flying him to the hospital. It’s this dual skill set that has made him a fixture at STARS and an ideal leader for our clinical program.

Armstrong came by his aviation background honestly, embarking upon his first flights at his father’s helicopter company in 1975. It proved to be a steady summer job while he went through medical school.

It was through the aviation world that Armstrong came to know another physician and pilot – Dr. Greg Powell – who would eventually go on to establish STARS in 1985.

With his background, it didn’t take much persuading on the part of Powell to get Armstrong involved in the fledgling air ambulance service in 1991. Armstrong initially signed on as a relief pilot.

He became more involved in the organization during the 1990s and ultimately served as aviation operations manager and vice president of medicine and aviation. Though he stepped back from STARS in 2004 to be the clinical and academic head of anesthesia at University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine and the Calgary Health Region, he continued flying missions as a relief pilot, which he does to this day.

In October 2013, Armstrong jumped at the opportunity to serve as the chief medical officer for STARS. “I couldn’t be luckier about the organization I’m inheriting,” he said. “STARS has been almost 30 years in development and it’s outstanding.”

Armstrong has no plans to rest on his laurels. He notes that as CMO, he will be responsible for continual development of clinical standards, medical educational programs and research activities at STARS.

He is also ultimately accountable for ensuring patients receive the best treatment possible. This includes overseeing almost 100 transport physicians who work at STARS throughout Western Canada and continually refining the medical protocols the air medical crews use on missions.

Though Armstrong has seen many changes in his years at STARS, there is one thing he says has remained timeless. “Our main focus has never changed. It’s all about the patient. I don’t want to sound hackneyed, but it’s true. STARS does a very difficult and important job very well.”

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