Flying Emergency Rooms

'They told me I was within 20 minutes of expiring.'

by Jay Meisel, Highlands Today, Sebring, Fla. / February 8, 2016
(Shutterstock)

(TNS) - Lake Placid resident Barbie Coleman had always wanted to ride in a helicopter, but when she did, it was a lot different than what she had envisioned.

Not long before her two flights in 2007, Coleman had been admitted to Florida Hospital Sebring for an operation to stretch her esophagus and to correct a condition that may have been hereditary.

After a complication during the surgery, Coleman ended up being transported by helicopter to Orlando Regency Medical Center in a trip that was literally life or death for her.

“They told me I was within 20 minutes of expiring,” Coleman said.

Weeks later after returning home, an inflammation resulted in Coleman being transported a second time to Orlando Regency Hospital for emergency care.

John Scott, business manager for Aeromed, which is based at Tampa General Hospital but has a helicopter stationed at Sebring Regional Airport, said Aeromed typically transports patients like Coleman, who are in desperate need of advanced medical care.

“We transport the very sick, very acutely ill people,” he said. They also often take people who have experienced traumatic injuries and need the advanced level of care provided by trauma centers. Someone who breaks a leg would not be the type of patient transported by Aeromed, he explained.

Aeromed’s helicopter in Sebring has room for a pilot, a paramedic, a nurse and a patient. Some helicopters have room for a second patient.

Aeromed’s purpose is to support Emergency Medical Services personnel in the field.

While hospitals and highways may be hot zones for Aeromed landings, at times the helicopters will go directly to residential and agricultural areas to pick up a patient.

“We have landed in nearby yards to people’s homes,” said Matt Burnett, a paramedic stationed in Sebring. They can do that as long as there’s enough room, he added.

“We can do that, especially here where it’s a little more rural,” he added.

Every flight includes a pilot, a nurse and a paramedic, Burnett said.

Aeromed says all crew members have training in advanced cardiac life support, pediatric advanced life support, basic life support, neonatal resuscitation, advanced trauma life support and water egress.

Although Aeromed is headquartered at Tampa General Hospital, Burnett said, they transport patients to the nearest medical facility that can provide the services they need. Under normal circumstances, one of its goals is to provide the most timely response available, Burnett said.

“Our goal is to be off the ground within five minutes,” he said.

However, Aeromed has guidelines in place that would prevent or delay flights during bad weather, windy situations or low visibility, he said.

Burnett said that’s a key to reducing the number of medical helicopter flight crashes

At times, he said, the decision has to be made to transport the patient on the ground because of the weather conditions.

Burnett said crashes typically may result from other medical flight services “pushing the limits,” in flying patients.

With Aeromed, he said, “If we don’t meet the minimum (conditions) for a safe flight, we will decline the flight because we want to transport the patient safely and arrive back safely.”

The most typical transports include people who suffered heart attacks and strokes and those who were in car accidents, he said.

Personnel on the helicopter flights are trained and equipped to provide an advanced level of care during the trip, he said. The helicopters carry a large supply of medicines.

The helicopters serve as mobile emergency rooms with the medical personnel able to insert chest tubes, do EKGS and provide medical infusion, among other services.

This level of care is what particularly impressed Coleman, although she has limited memories of the trips.

“They were phenomenal,” she said of the medical personnel on the flight. “They were doing everything they could to ease my pain.”

She during the second trip, “pretty much a few of the things that stand out were the beautiful lights below as we flew in the night air and I remember telling one of the medics I had always wanted to take a helicopter ride, but this wasn’t how I expected it to be. The other memory is simply of the incredible pain and they kept pumping me full of medicine.”

Burnett said that providing an advanced level of care to patients like Coleman is why he wanted to be involved in providing medical transport by helicopter.

“It’s always something I wanted to do,” he said. “It’s the level of care we’re able to provide.”

Noah Connell, who works as a paramedic on flights, said he has been working for Aeromed for about seven years, starting in Punta Gorda.

But, since he lives in Lake Placid, he embraced the opportunity to move to Sebring.

He said he enjoys working on a helicopter.

It’s nothing personal, but Coleman indicated she would prefer her next helicopter flight doesn’t have a need for services from Connell or other medics.

“By the way, I’m looking forward to one day taking that helicopter ride… the right way,” she quipped.

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©2016 the Highlands Today (Sebring, Fla.)

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