Originally created 05/23/00

Air ambulance will save lives



The grass bends out in undulating rings, and water sloshes out of puddles as Steve Dexter passes overhead.

The staccato thump of helicopter rotors may soon be music to the ears of emergency workers as Mr. Dexter pilots the Air/Med air ambulance to the scene. It will be Augusta's first full-time air ambulance since University Hospital's Lifebird closed up shop in May 1987.

Air/Med is the result of a cooperative effort between Gold Cross EMS, Doctors Hospital and MCG Health Inc., said Tom Schneider, chief executive officer for Gold Cross. Details of a contract for service with MCG are still being worked out, said MCG Health President Don Snell. Air/Med actually started up May 1 and hopes to transport 40-50 patients a month, many of them burn patients to Doctors' Burn Center or trauma patients to MCG's regional trauma centers or Children's Medical Center. Previously, air ambulances had to be dispatched from Atlanta, Columbia or Savannah.

"We just feel like this is really overdue," Mr. Schneider said. "It's going to save lives."

The Italian-made A109 Agusta sports twin jet engines, can cruise at 170 mph and, with a 175-pound patient, has a range of about 75 miles without refueling. The air ambulance has made one trip of about 225 miles to pick up a burn patient in Blakely, Ga., with one refueling stop, Mr. Dexter said. Most of the calls will be within a 100-mile range, Mr. Dexter said.

The new program shares several links with Lifebird, including program director and chief flight nurse Sue Putnam, who was a flight nurse on Lifebird.

"One of the hardest things I ever did was to unload the equipment out of Lifebird (when it ended)," said Mrs. Putnam, standing on the runway at Daniel Field in her tan, flame-retardant flight suit. "It gets in your blood."

She also worked on the Rocky Mountain air ambulance that served Doctors' burn unit in the early '90s. In addition to the more than $1 million helicopter, Gold Cross is also introducing a $250,000 intensive care ambulance that is larger and better-equipped than normal ambulances, Gold Cross officials said. The ground ambulance will be used when time is not a factor, or when the patient or the helicopter can't fly, officials said.

But Air/Med is much quicker than a ground ambulance - a recent trip to Emmanuel County took a half-hour vs. 1´ hours by ground ambulance, Mr. Schneider said.

And the time saved makes a big difference in who can be helped, Augusta doctors said. While MCG's transport team is already ferrying some faraway patients by plane, the helicopter speeds that up and may allow teams to respond to situations they haven't before, said Jatinder Bhatia, chief of the section of neonatology at MCG.

"The advantage is access, so we can get anywhere in a timely manner," Dr. Bhatia said. "We've been wanting it for a long time."

The quicker they arrive, the better the outcome and the less time in the hospital, said Dr. Joseph Still, medical director of Doctors' Burn Center.

And it allows Augusta to compete in some areas with urban hospitals that dispatch their own helicopters, said MCG pediatric surgeon Robyn Hatley.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.