“The victim was transported by helicopter to UC Medical Center.”
These words are familiar to anyone who watches or reads the news in Greater Cincinnati, and viewers immediately know that the person’s injuries are so serious the expert medical care only available at UC Health is needed.
But for the men and women behind those words, who fly the Air Care helicopter every day to provide life-saving care where it’s needed most, no flight experience is ever the same.
“Clear right and left and above,” the pilot says. “Pulling in power.”
The helicopter’s rotor blades rapidly pick up speed as pilot Bob Francis alerts the crew and expertly lifts the aircraft from the helipad on the roof of UC Medical Center. His head swivels left, right, then repeats before completing the hover checks required to move the aircraft up and forward. Bob adjusts the speaker near his mouth and calmly shares his coordinates and flight plan again with the UC Health Air Care Communications Center. His eyes dart rapidly, scanning the dozens of buttons, levers and gauges that help keep the on-board crew safe in flight.
Today, the crew has been called out to transport a patient from one area hospital to another.
In the back of the aircraft, Air Care nurse Rodney Wise, RN, sits next to flight physician Dr. Gerard Colmer IV, emergency medicine resident. Although they have already completed the check of equipment, Rodney checks again.
“Do we have a patient weight?” Bob asks through the headset embedded within the helmets, allowing the crew to communicate even through the deafening noise of the propellers and rushing wind.
“Not yet,” Rodney answers. “Can you message the hospital?”
“Affirmative,” says Bob, who then contacts the Communications Center for additional patient information. His tools allow him to speak to virtually anyone he needs — including the hospital where they are heading to pick up a patient that needs to be transferred to another nearby hospital.
“The weight is important,” Rodney explains, “because the total weight within the aircraft has to be within a specific range to operate safely.”
On the ground below, the tiny houses and cars come into focus as the aircraft approaches its destination. The bright red cross of the helipad beckons, and Bob carefully begins the descent.
“Eyes out,” Bob calls. Rodney and Dr. Colmer look out of their windows, each doing their part to ensure a safe landing — both for the crew in flight and for those on the ground. Most helicopter accidents occur during take-off or landing — which is why vigilance by all on board is crucial to maintaining the Air Care team’s perfect, accident-free record within their 34-year history at UC Medical Center.
Monitoring the skies is also critical to safety. The pilots coordinate with the local weather service and also analyze conditions from a high-tech weather station on the roof of UC Medical Center to determine if they are “green,” “yellow” or “red” to fly.
On this day, clouds thicken the air with humidity, but the crew assures flight conditions are secure nonetheless. Pilots take the safety of the crew just as seriously as the wellness of the patients. Anyone on the crew can refuse a flight for any reason if they think it might be unsafe — today, none do.
The helicopter descends to solid ground. Dr. Colmer and Rodney slide open the door and exit, bringing a large bag of equipment with them. They walk briskly together, through the sliding glass doors, and into the hospital’s emergency department, where they are greeted by a nurse who begins to brief them about the patient.
“What medication has she received? Do we have the latest scans?” Dr. Colmer asks the nurse.
“I’ll get that for you,” the nurse responds. Dr. Colmer and Rodney introduce themselves to the patient, and Rodney asks if she has ever flown in a helicopter before.
“Oh no, honey,” she answers, grimacing from her discomfort.
The patient’s chief complaint — chest pains — has caused the hospital’s staff to request an Air Care transfer to another nearby hospital for a higher level of care.
The UC Health Air Care staff — made up of 18 specially-trained nurses, more than 30 flight physicians, 12 communications specialists, seven mechanics and 13 pilots — accommodates requests like these on a near daily basis, often transporting patients to UC Medical Center, the region’s Level I Trauma Center, where the most complex healthcare needs can be addressed.
Pilots and Air Care nurses, flight physicians and advanced practice nurses are on call, on location, waiting to help. Responding to a scene could present a variety of situations — from a car accident on a highway to a drowning in a country lake or a farm accident in the middle of a field. They have to be ready for anything at any time.
About UC Health Air Care:
- Three aircraft are positioned at three separate UC Health hangars: Butler County, Brown County and Hamilton County. A new hangar will open in Northern Kentucky in 2018.
- Two aircraft each carry an experienced resident physician and a certified flight nurse; the third carries a nurse practitioner and certified flight nurse.
- Metro Aviation employs the pilots and mechanics and ensures their training is up to code and meets and exceeds flight standards. The clinical staff is all employed by UC Health.
- Items carried by UC Health Air Care include (but are not limited to):
- Blood and plasma
- Night vision goggles
- Field amputation kits
- The most frequently seen condition in Air Care responses is trauma, followed by cardiac events and stroke.
- Each helicopter is worth an estimated $8 million.
- Pilots work seven days on, then seven days off, in 12-hour shifts.
- Air Care nurses respond to emergency calls within the hospital. They are often asked to assist with placing tough IVs for patients throughout the hospital.
“I’m going to give you a little Zofran to help with any nausea,” Rodney tells the patient as she settles within the aircraft. She focuses on her breathing as Rodney administers medication through her IV. As the rotor blades begin to roar and Bob completes the pre-flight checks, Rodney leans over and whispers something into her ear. She smiles gently and closes her eyes, her hands grasping the white blanket keeping her warm. Rodney lets the pilot know they’re good to go.
In less than six minutes, the helicopter has touched down at the receiving hospital. The patient is well-bundled and secure on the stretcher, and the crew gently transports her from the aircraft into the hospital. The care team — including nurses, physicians, technologists and radiologists — are already waiting as the patient is wheeled in. Dr. Colmer and Rodney share medical information about the patient, including her most recent medications and EKG results.
After the patient settles onto a cardiac catheterization lab table, Rodney removes the sheets from the helicopter stretcher, cleans the mattress and replaces them with fresh, new linens. The UC Health Air Care team is ready for the next call.
The entire experience – from the call to the first hospital and then arrival at the final destination- took less than 15 minutes via air. The trip would have taken 30 minutes or more via ground – and for many patients, those minutes can mean the difference between life and death.
Back inside the helicopter, preparing to return to UC Medical Center, Rodney explains why he chose to become a flight nurse.
“I have the ability to see my impact immediately — you see a scene and a patient and you can help right away,” he said. “We bring the care to the patient — we’re much more than a transport service.”
“I look at it from serving my country to serving my community,” added Bob, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
“We have only one of a handful of emergency medicine programs in the country where physicians fly,” Dr. Colmer said. “It’s one of the main reasons I came here.”
Back at the hangar, the crew gathers for a quick debrief, which is standard practice after every flight. They discuss what went well and what could have been done better. After a short conversation, they decide that this transfer went smoothly and that the patient should do well also.
Rodney logs into the computer and begins completing his notes in the patient’s medical chart. Bob returns to the aircraft to prepare it for the next call. And Dr. Colmer checks in with the attending physician to see if he can help in the emergency department until the next flight request.
For now, all is quiet – but the crew sits at the ready, never knowing when it might be called upon to bring safe, expert, compassionate care to a patient in need.