A $26.4 million grant is spreading ultrasound technology and knowledge across Minnesota to provide faster diagnoses and better emergency care in even the state's smallest hospitals.

Helmsley Charitable Trust announced its grant Tuesday to better equip about 100 hospitals and clinics, many of which have endured financial challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and can't afford the technology or training without help.

"This will be a game changer for diagnostics and help Minnesotans get the care they need quickly," said Walter Panzirer, a trustee for the foundation, which was created by the late New York hotel and real estate developer Leona Helmsley.

While people and pop culture associate ultrasounds with pregnancies, the scanners are commonly used in emergencies to identify internal injuries and make decisions on treatments and surgeries. The latest versions connect handheld scanners to Wi-Fi-enabled tablets, making it easy to scan patients at their bedsides and share results remotely with specialists.

The grant announcement took place at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, which pioneered ER use of ultrasound technology. Rising violence in the mid-1980s resulted in more patients at HCMC with stab wounds to the heart that were difficult to detect unless patients went into cardiac arrest, said Dr. Dave Plummer, an HCMC emergency medicine specialist.

Plummer proved ultrasound scans could identify the stab wounds quickly and substantially reduce mortality. Over time, he said ultrasound proved its life-saving worth in rapid diagnoses of ruptured aortic aneurysms, bleeding in the lungs, and around 60 emergency conditions that can emerge in "every emergency department everywhere."

"This equipment at the bedside will help all of our colleagues across the state, who are excellent," he said. "They just need a good tool in their hands in order to do the same really rapid diagnosis and disposition and interventions as large trauma centers."

Minnesota has gained nearly $100 million in grants from the Helmsley foundation, which includes rural health care as one of its five priorities. An earlier grant funded a University of Minnesota study of "super ambulances" that could provide mobile heart-lung bypass machines and treatment of cardiac arrests.

Panzirer, Helmsley's grandson, worked as a first-responder in South Dakota and became aware of the gaps in rural emergency care.

"Your ZIP code should not determine your health care outcome," Panzirer said, "but unfortunately it does."

Juana Maldonado Espinosa entered the HCMC emergency room Monday with a painful bulge in her neck that at first glance was a swollen salivary gland. Dr. Stephen Smith used an ultrasound exam to find that an infection had caused a fluid buildup deeper in her neck that was causing pain and even disrupting her breathing.

"I use ultrasound for everything," Smith said. "I see something swollen, I want to take a look and see what its insides look like."

Surgery to drain the fluid is planned if antibiotics don't reduce the swelling for the 54-year-old patient from Brooklyn Park.

Money is a barrier to new tools in smaller hospitals. Glacial Ridge Health System in Glenwood, Minn., received nearly $460,000 in grants to buy five ultrasound systems it otherwise couldn't afford, said Thomas Pahl, a physician assistant in Glenwood's ER.

"We, too, have to rapidly identify immediately life-threatening conditions," he said. "If point-of-care ultrasound has enough value at a premier trauma hospital like Hennepin County, how much more value does it have in a resource-limited environment?"

Tuesday's announcement includes $8.1 million for expanded training, including $1 million for an ultrasound technician program at St. Cloud Technical & Community College.

Hennepin Healthcare provided one- or two-day training seminars in the past, but found doctors and other providers still didn't feel comfortable making diagnostic decisions with the technology back at their hospitals, said Dr. Robert Reardon, an HCMC emergency medicine physician.

The funding will allow for broader training, including online sessions where trainers can guide practitioners on their real-time use of ultrasound scanners at their hospitals. Helmsley leaders encouraged doctors across the state to sign up for the improved training now that their hospitals have the technology.