AirCare Copter is a Flying Hospital
July 13, 2016
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  • Its interior is small, but the AirCare medical helicopter stationed at the Blue Ridge Regional Airport in Spencer is as well-equipped as a hospital emergency room, according to medics who fly in it.

    They can perform many emergency procedures, including giving electrical shock to patients whose hearts have stopped, nurse Jacob Moore told Martinsville City Council members who toured the airport on Tuesday.

    About 200 medications are kept aboard the chopper, added emergency medical technician Dave Lockwood.

    “I think that’s cool, man!” said Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles, who was thrilled to be allowed to sit in the pilot’s seat. She was astonished at all the technology and medicines in the helicopter.

    However, AirCare has its limitations. For instance, Lockwood said, medics cannot stop internal bleeding. Yet they carry supplies of fresh blood and other fluids that are administered to patients needing them, he said.

    Moore and Lockwood work for Air Methods, which provides air medical personnel to Wake Forest Baptist Health Critical Care Transport of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which operates the AirCare service.

    From offices inside the airport’s old terminal, AirCare crews work around the clock — even on holidays—in 12-hour shifts. Crews consist of a total of four pilots, 10 nurses and 10 emergency medical technicians, as well as two mechanics, said airport manager Jason Davis.

    The service averages transporting one patient per day, Moore said.

    Although it is affiliated with Baptist Health, AirCare regularly transports patients to both the Winston-Salem hospital and Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Both regional medical centers are a little more than 40 miles away from Martinsville-Henry County by air, and the helicopter generally can fly patients to either in about 20 minutes, Lockwood said.

    Under insurance regulations, AirCare is supposed to fly patients to the nearest regional medical center, he said, adding that when it doesn’t, it has to explain why to insurance companies. There must be a good reason, such as weather problems, he added.

    Because Winston-Salem and Roanoke are so close, though, it often doesn’t matter which one that patients are flown to, and patients frequently are asked which one they prefer, Moore said.

    But the helicopter has transported patients as far as Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond and Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., such as when people who live closer to those hospitals who visited the area needed emergency care and preferred to receive it near home, Moore noted.

    AirCare has maintained a base at the airport since May 2012, Davis said.

    Still, crews sometimes encounter people who say, “We’ve got a (medical) helicopter here? I didn’t know that,” Moore said.

    The airport is to receive $9,000 from the city for the new fiscal year that started July 1. It is one of about two dozen local organizations which the city helps fund, with allocations set by the council during annual budgeting processes, because officials believe the organizations provide valuable services to the community.

    About 22,000 people fly in and out of the airport each year, Davis said. The airport averages 66 activities— including takeoffs and landings of planes and helicopters — daily, he said.

    Fifty-five aircraft are based there, he mentioned.

    Davis, City Manager Leon Towarnicki and Councilman Gene Teague all agreed that the airport’s presence is a major economic development tool for the area.

    For example, Towarnicki said, executives fly in and out to visit their companies’ area plants and/or see sites where their firms might want to locate.

    “A corporation doesn’t want to go through a major airport,” added Mayor Danny Turner.

    Rather than flying into a large metropolitan airport — such as Piedmont Triad International — and then traveling by car a considerable distance to the Martinsville area, executives prefer flying into Blue Ridge Regional on smaller planes that the airport accommodates and not having to travel as far by car, according to airport and city officials.

    They also prefer the one-on-one service that smaller airports can provide, officials said.

    Having a medical helicopter stationed at the airport often impresses visiting executives, they indicated.

    In the next nine years, the airport hopes to secure an estimated $13 million to $15 million to extend its runway by 1,000 feet, which would be “a game-changer” in terms of the amount of air traffic it can host, Davis said.

    With its current 5,002-foot-long and 100-foot-wide runway, the airport can handle smaller planes and jets that weigh up to 120,000 pounds, he said.

    “Can we land a 747 here? Yes, but not every day,” Davis continued, referencing a type of commercial airliner that routinely flies into metropolitan airports.

    Perhaps in an emergency one might be able to land there.