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Hospital helicopter transports are saving lives

UMMCinflight_rgbTransporting critically ill or injured patients by helicopter from hospital to hospital or from the scene of an accident is commonplace in Mississippi’s urban centers and rural communities.

Today about a dozen helicopters operate in Mississippi, flying heart transplant recipients, accident victims and premature babies to lifesaving care. The service is available throughout the state and the helicopters are based in locations from Corinth to Hattiesburg.

“It definitely is a life-saving resource to have in the region simply because it provides an advanced level of care in a speedy form. As rural as Mississippi is in general air medical transportation can be a big benefit,” said Josh Wenzel, administrative director of patient placement and transportation for North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo.

Last year the medical center’s CareFlight program celebrated 25 years of operation and more than 7,300 flights. CareFlight is a division of North Mississippi Health Services. The helicopter is staffed by hospital employees, and its pilots and mechanics are contract employees.

Wenzel said CareFlight logs between 400 and 500 flights a year, mostly in response to vehicle accidents and transfers from emergency rooms to the medical center.

The number of lives that medical helicopter missions save is unknown but the results are widely acknowledged.

“We do make a difference,” said Todd Perry, chief flight nurse for the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s AirCare service, which has operated under the umbrella of the medical center since 1996.

UMMC also has operated a helicopter in Meridian since 2009. Training for both operations is done through the medical center.

If one of the helicopters is on a flight, the other fills in. Most of the UMMC flights, about 85 percent, pick up and deliver patients between hospitals but the crews also take calls to the scenes of accidents. “We respond statewide,” said Perry.

Perry said on a typical mission, the UMMC helicopter crew consists of a pilot, flight nurse and flight paramedic. The staff, which includes 25 medical personnel working 12-hour shifts, is available around the clock. Pilots, most with military backgrounds, work on contract.

Since the program began, the AirCare teams have transported more than 16,000 adult, pediatric and neonatal patients almost 2 million miles.

Hattiesburg’s medical helicopter service dates back to the late 1960s when the city took part in the federal air rescue test program. Jackson and Greenwood also participated but only Hattiesburg organized a local operation after the government program ended.

Now, Forrest General has two air ambulance helicopters to transport patients to and from the hospital for emergency care.

Rescue 7 has been operated by the Southeast Mississippi Air Ambulance District since 1971 with Forrest General serving as its medical control Base. Its crews have transported more than 15,000 patients. In 2008, SEMAAD partnered with Baptist LifeFlight, based in Pensacola, Fla., to expand its service. LifeFlight’s coverage area includes South Mississippi.

Dr. John Nelson, Medical Director for Forrest General’s Emergency Services, said that Rescue 7 is the longest continually operating non-hospital based helicopter ambulance service in America.

As technology and training have advanced, the medical helicopters have evolved from a basic flying ambulance to a sophisticated airborne version of the hospital emergency room.

The early medical helicopter flights were basic transportation with no attendants but now patients receive critical care much as they would in ICU and the emergency room.

“We use aircraft nobody else in the state uses,” Perry said. Both are flown under instrument rules that allow flying in marginal weather conditions. With top of the line color weather radar, anti-collision instruments and night vision goggles among other equipment, the only conditions that keep the crew on the ground are dense fog, freezing rain and thunderstorms.

Hattiesburg-rescue-7_rgbDepending on conditions, the helicopter can travel at an altitude of 7,500 to 8,500 feet and cruise at an average 155 mph.

And as technology improves, the price increases. “It costs millions of dollars a year to operate an aircraft,” said Wetzel. Instead of buying its own multimillion helicopter, Tupelo leases one. “It’s a very expensive tool,” he said.

The cost of a new helicopter like the one UMMC flies is around $7 million, Perry said. UMMC’s companion helicopter based in Meridian comes with a $5.5 million price tag.

The industry average is “probably $12,000 to $20,000 per flight,” Perry said, including the basic liftoff fee, mileage and any medicine and equipment used.

Still, Wetzel said, “in the grand scheme of things. EMS transport is such a small number when you look at the total cost of health care but it has a very big impact.”

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