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When Every Minute Counts


When he was an emergency room physician at Charles A. Dean Memorial Hospital (CA Dean) treating lost and injured hikers, hunters, or snowmobilers, Robert Bowie, MD, director of Emergency Medical Services, would sometimes ask himself, “If we reached this patient sooner, what kind of difference could it make?”

That is the question that has driven him towards a new career as a professor of practice in the biomedical engineering program at the University of Maine. Here, ‘Doc Bowie’ as he is known, is putting his varied skillset to use working with engineering students to develop better drones to find the injured that much sooner.

IMG_1340.JPG“The focus at the university in the last six months or so with the students is to try to develop technology that assesses a patient’s vital signs from a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) at far field—which is away from the patient a bit—and near field which is close to them, but all non-invasively,” said Doc Bowie.

Doc Bowie is currently the Emergency Medical Services director at CA Dean and the medical director for Downeast Emergency Medicine Institute, or DEEMI. DEEMI is a nonprofit search and rescue organization that has a fleet of Humvees, a fixed-wing aircraft, and drones that it deploys for search and rescue missions across Maine. In addition to his doctoral degree in medicine, Doc Bowie has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, has worked as a medic, and has treated patients in the back of an ambulance in rural locations around the Moosehead Lake area. 

“It’s a 55-mile lake. It’s an area the size of Rhode Island we covered with CA Dean EMS, and in that, you get to realize how truly remote it can be,” he said as he showed us a map on the wall of his office with dozens of pushpins around the Moosehead Lake area that he has been to on emergency calls.

IMG_1330.JPGHis office is also filled with search and rescue equipment and technology, including an older version drone, an x-ray machine, and a defibrillator. On the far wall is a dry erase board that is covered in writing, featuring drawings of drones, notes about search and rescue technology, various partners, grants, and research projects. Outside in the University of Maine parking lot is the vehicle he drove to work—a bright orange, yellow, and white, Humvee with a 12-thousand-pound winch on the front grill, an array of lights, antennas, sensors, and search and rescue equipment. He brings all this to the campus for a reason.

“The students get a clinical connection. They get to see why they’re making this device. They see a place where it is being used. We bring them the ambulance, we bring them the Humvee, we bring them the UAV, and they actually touch it and see it working and they see how what they are working on could be actually used in a scenario.”

Hemant Pendse, PhD, is the department chair of the University of Maine’s Biomedical Engineering program. He said Dr. Bowie’s skillset and connections to a rural hospital and search and rescue organization make him an invaluable asset. 

“What he brings to the classroom and other faculty members and other students is his vast experience.”
Currently, the students are developing a prototype drone that could be used to locate a patient, assess the patient’s condition, and fly in emergency medical supplies or equipment. The drone will have cameras and thermal sensors that could find a patient and assess a patient’s body temperature and approximate weight. It could also help determine if the patient is breathing, conscious, and alert. The drones could also be used to drop in equipment to patients such as a thermal blanket if they’re experiencing hypothermia or aspirin if they’re complaining of chest pain. It could fly in supplies, antibiotics, or equipment to paramedics once they’ve reached a patient.  

“We try to support the medics in the job they are trying to do which is to get the patient out sooner rather than later and get them out treated and safe and in less misery. And then, it allows the doctor down the line at Eastern Maine Medical Center or the receiving hospital to prepare for this patient.”
It’s a partnership bringing the best minds at the University of Maine, DEEMI, and EMHS’ rural hospitals, such as CA Dean, to help save lives across Maine.

“The other thing that people don’t realize is that this interaction between the people at CA Dean, and DEEMI, and the university energizes the volunteers, so they get more enthusiastic about their day-to-day job—they’re a part of something improving things. Any time you have the privilege of doing that, it makes your job so much better.”