Allegheny County

Medical helicopters will be more active as “trauma season” approaches

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh was the first city northeast of the Mississippi River to have a medical helicopter. It started in 1978 at Allegheny General Hospital with just one helicopter. Now, Life Flight which is operated by Allegheny Health Network has five helicopters in its fleet. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, there are two main air medical units: Life Flight with AHN and STAT Medevac which is run by UPMC’s Center for Emergency Medicine of Western Pennsylvania. We have so many helicopters in our region for two main reasons — geography and the need for speed.

Medical helicopters transport roughly 13,000 patients to Pittsburgh hospitals every year. One of them was Christine Holt. “From what the neurosurgeon told me my skull was broken like a puzzle piece,” recalls Holt. After being kicked in the head by a horse, Holt was flown by Life Flight — from a field in Butler to Allegheny General Hospital. The trip took just 15 minutes. “Definitely saved my life. There was no way I was making it by ambulance,” says Holt.

Doctor Matthew Poremba, medical director of Life Flight, says our geography and rural surroundings in Western Pennsylvania dictate the need and use of medical helicopters. “A place like New York City, you are not going to see a large amount of air medical helicopters because you are a resource dense area,” he says. “But if you are not a resource dense area and you are like Western PA and you have Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and Erie, everything in between is going to need to get to where they need to go quickly. And that’s where air medical helicopters come into play.”

Inside medical helicopters — crews will have life-saving medicine, blood, ventilators and incubators to keep patients alive. “We are a critical care team, essentially a flying ICU,” says Allan Slagle, a flight paramedic with STAT Medevac. He, a nurse and pilot are ready to go at a moments notice. “We can usually be off the ground in about 6 minutes from when the tones go off to when we leave.”

Medical helicopters don’t stop at traffic lights or face the slow-downs that drivers will face, like bridges and tunnels. Steve Lenick is a pilot for STAT Medevac. “I can get from Uniontown to Presby (UPMC Presbyterian) in 17-18 minutes. Where on a bad day in traffic that’s an hour and a half, two hours.”

STAT Medevac started in 1984 with just one helicopter. Now it has 23 in its fleet, and it’s become one of the biggest not-for-profit air medical programs in the country. “We have actually set up hundreds and hundreds of what we call pre-designated landing zones all over Western Pennsylvania, as far north as New York and over into Ohio,” says Don Goodman, vice president of STAT Medevac. Helicopters will land in baseball fields, at farms and on highways to rescue and transport patients. Christine Holt has fully recovered and is back to riding horses. She knows first-hand the life-saving work being done high above Western Pennsylvania. “You just have an appreciation. An appreciation for everyone involved. Thank God everyone was there to do that. "

The cost of being transported by medical helicopter is high — it can be thousands of dollars. It is covered by insurance. Patients will pay their co-pay and deductible. Thanks to a new law, called the No Surprises Act, patients cannot be sent a big “surprise” bill for any balance.

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