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AirCare at UMC still expanding service after a decade

JACKSON — Donna Norris leaned into the speaker and listened as the AirCare helicopter radioed in its status. It was approximately 10 minutes outside of Cleveland in the middle-Delta, carrying one patient southbound for the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC).

This particular morning there was a strong north wind, giving the chopper, which unaided can hit 150 miles per hour, a good tailwind. AirCare, the aeromedical critical care transport service of UMC, would make this morning trip, the first of the day, in approximately 45 minutes. It would take a ground-based ambulance doing 70 miles per hour approximately two hours to make the same trip.

Approximately 40 minutes after monitoring the helicopter’s radio traffic, Norris, the director of AirCare, was on the UMC rooftop heliport, watching the air ambulance land. It was all very routine, just another flight to add to the program’s solid safety record. (In 2004, AirCare won the Air Medical Safety Award from the Association of Air Medical Services in recognition of 5,000 consecutive accident-free hours.)

Immediately after the patient was rolled off the helicopter, refueling began. If odds held, AirCare would be flying again sometime that day and/or night. There is no way of knowing what condition the next patient would be in, or where the helicopter would have to go to pick that patient up. Norris and her team would simply have to be ready for anything.

Smooth flight

AirCare is in the midst of its 10-year anniversary. It’s a milestone event; however, Norris points to the lack of significant events over the program’s history as a major point of pride.

“Consistency of the program,” Norris answered when asked AirCare’s most signature achievements. “We have a stellar safety record.

“The biggest thing we have done in 10 years is, hopefully, being able to improve the quality of life for some patients. Unfortunately, not everyone survives, but we are making sure they reach what we call definitive care in the timeliest manner possible.”

AirCare was established at UMC, the state’s only Level I trauma center, in 1996, making its first flight in February of that year. (AirCare is actually UMC’s second air ambulance service. LifeStar flew from 1983 until its termination due to budgetary constraints in 1990.)

Over its history, AirCare, which is Mississippi’s only statewide air ambulance service, has logged over one million miles and transported more than 7,000 critically ill or injured patients. And, the program also provides neonatal transportation.

The twin-engine, 52-foot-long helicopter loaded out weighs roughly 8,000 pounds, and has the capability of lifting two patients, two medical personnel as well as the pilot. It is instrument rated, and can make flights day or night even in marginal weather.

The helicopter is essentially a flying intensive care unit equipped with a ventilator, vital signs monitor, heart monitor, intravenous pumps and medications. Patients served run the gamut from car crash victims to newborns struggling for life.

Norris has personally seen most of the 7,000 patients served; in fact, she has been on board on many of the flights. A UMC graduate, she joined the program in January 1997 as a staff nurse. Norris worked her way up to chief flight nurse before being named director of the AirCare program three years ago. She oversees six nurses, five paramedics, three in neonatal transport, two mechanics and four pilots, which are contracted from PHI, a Louisiana-based helicopter service company.

Norris and her team are required to have training over and beyond that required of their ground-based peers. The medical flight personnel have constant contact and support from UMC-based physicians. Still, when off the ground, AirCare’s in-flight medical team is the only hands available.

“In the aircraft, it’s you and your partner performing as many of those (emergency room) tasks as you can in a compressed time frame,” Norris said. “You do have the means to communicate with our physicians here at the university, if needed, via radio or telephone. We do have back up.”
“There are probably untold lives that were saved by… the nurses and the medics who have gone out to pick patients up and bring them back,” said flight nurse Bo Sullivan, one of AirCare’s original team members.

Expanded capabilities, role

AirCare is a highly regulated program. Protocol dictates that the program only respond to requesting physicians or paramedics. Patients must be deemed critically ill or injured and must be a certain distance from UMC before the helicopter is dispatched. In short, AirCare’s resources and capabilities are reserved only for those patients in dire condition and when time is of the essence.

Those capabilities recently got a huge boost. AirCare had always provided service to mass casualty events such as the Amtrak derailment in Madison County several years ago. Site landings were possible. However, the vast majority of AirCare’s flights were hospital to hospital. It did not have the capability of landing anywhere else.

But, that has changed. AirCare has established predetermined landing areas across the state. Now, if a paramedic calls them in, AirCare’s crew can land at the scene, or can land at one of these predetermined sites, saving the time of having to transport the patient to a helicopter-friendly hospital. These sites, none of which are closer than 20 miles from UMC, include everything from baseball fields to drug store parking lots.

Accident scene and predetermined site landings are limited to daytime operations only due to safety factors. But, AirCare knows that this improved capability will mean more lives saved.

AirCare is also anticipating an expanded role. UMC has a new CEO, Will Ferniany. Two of Ferniany’s goals is to increase the hospital’s trauma referrals as well as augmented kidney transplant service. Norris said she sees AirCare playing an important role in both these goals.

Dr. Bob Galli, UMC professor and chair of emergency medicine and AirCare’s off-line medical director, said, “There used to be areas of the state where there was no paramedics, meaning really no ambulance service to speak of. The ambulance service really blankets the state now, leaving no areas uncovered.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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