AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a medical emergency, timing is everything. If the specialized care you need is hours away, getting there in time could be the difference between life and death.
St. David’s HealthCare is tackling the problem with a new service. They’re the first in the region to offer a hospital-affiliated fixed-wing ambulance aircraft service, allowing medical personnel to travel great distances to bring care to patients. The plane is operated by AMR Air.
Unlike a helicopter, the fixed-wing aircraft is faster and not limited by inclement weather conditions like fog. It has more space, and is less noisy for the passengers on board.
Brett Steffen is the director of outreach and EMS relations for St. David’s HealthCare. “We knew that we had to have a resource available to us to meet those patients at the place of their injury or illness. And as that distance gets larger we needed to expand our tools from ground, rotor wing, to fixed-wing aircraft to be able to reach those patients in a timely manner,” said Steffen.
Pilots and emergency crews are on standby 24/7, and are averaging about five to six patients a month. Clinicians in the hospital on staff are also on call 24/7.
Matthew Clearman is one of the paramedics on board. He says when they’re not on calls they’re training.
Safety is their number one priority, conducting rigorous checks and service for the aircraft. “For those that are scared to fly, our providers are trained in air medical care, and so that is one of the things they’re trained on, how to make sure the patients are comfortable and safe,” said Steffen.
It’s a priority because they’re carrying precious cargo, patients like Jennifer Villarreal and her unborn baby. “It’s scary, but really not. You know you’re doing the best thing that you have to do at the time,” said Villarreal.
When Villarreal was five months pregnant, she was at risk of going into labor. If that happened, her hospital in San Angelo wasn’t equipped to keep her baby alive. So St. David’s brought the care to her.
“There was a team of, I believe, four or five, just for me, and very professional,” said Villarreal. “Kept me calm and it was awesome.”
During the flight, Villarreal was able to see sonograms of her baby. She was brought to St. David’s Women’s Center of Texas, where doctors were able to delay Villarreal’s delivery by two weeks. After her son Ezra was born, they kept him in the NICU for nearly 150 days.
“It was a miracle itself,” said Villarreal. “He wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the flight crew or St. David’s, the NICU, the doctors.”
Steffen says a plane transport would likely be more expensive than a helicopter transport, and that different insurance plans vary on how much they’ll cover, but if a physician believes it’s the best choice for a patient, getting care is the priority.
“It’s a decision that’s made by sending physician based on the time-sensitive nature of the patient’s condition, the distance the patient is going to fly or travel and what other resources are available for that patient.”
While it’s a flight you’ll hopefully never have to take, those who do are in good hands.