A small but interested crowd gathered in Grand Pass on Tuesday, July 10, to listen to a speaker talk about the Staff For Life Helicopter service.
The Grand Pass City Council sponsored the informational session, which included a presentation by Joan Drake, marketing, business development and outreach educator for the helicopter ambulance, and Joe Blodgett, Saline County Ambulance District director
Beverly Richtermeyer, Grand Pass mayor, introduced Drake, who served as a nurse on the air ambulance for 25 years before taking her current position.
"It's a fascinating career to have, to work on a medical helicopter," Drake said, adding that their purpose is to take care of the sickest patients.
The Staff for Life air ambulance began in 1982, the third in the state. It followed similar programs in Kansas City and St. Louis. They now have three helicopters, one stationed in Columbia, one in LaMonte and one in Osage Beach. Last year, Missouri was ranked seventh in the nation for the number of air ambulances, with over 30.
Drake and Blodgett explained that air ambulances are used for critical patients, either critically ill, such as heart attack or stroke victims, or those critically injured in accidents. They can land on the scene and transfer patients to the hospital of their choice, or the hospital most suited for their needs. They also transfer patients from hospital to hospital, in order to get the appropriate critical care.
"Sometimes it is very difficult to tell if someone warrants a helicopter flight or not, we don't always know," she said. "We all do our best to make sure the right people fly."
Blodgett also spoke on this point. In Saline County, the ambulance district has protocols they follow to determine when a helicopter is called. He said it depends on the person's condition and the distance they are from an appropriate hospital.
"We go out on about 1,800 calls a year. Out of those we have about 150 that are determined life threatening. Out of those 150, we may fly 30," he said.
He said that if people are able to tell personnel what hospital they want to go to, they are flown to that hospital.
"If they can't tell us, we'll make some decisions based on trauma centers and how close we are," she said.
Often, after receiving a 911 call, Drake said the helicopter service is put on "stand by," which means they may actually get in the air. As medical personnel arrive at the scene to assess the situation, they can decide whether to keep the helicopter coming to the scene, or send it back to the base, in which case no charge is issued.
Staff for Life is affiliated with, but not owned by, University of Missouri-Columbia hospital. The affiliation gives air ambulance staff opportunities for continuing education, but doesn't tie them to the hospital.
"We don't care where patients go. Our helicopter service will take patients where they need to go," she said. "It doesn't matter, we are going to go to the most appropriate hospital or the closest hospital."
The affiliation with the University does give them "tremendous" opportunities for training.
"We have a tremendous amount of research and learning opportunities," she said. They are required to spend hours training in the various trauma units, she said.
They also review each patient they fly, trying to learn with each case, Drake said.
She said Staff for Life is also the only helicopter service in Missouri that carries blood on every flight, giving it to patients if it is appropriate.
"This blood can buy you time," she said.
Drake said she has flown on some flights where getting the blood in the air has made the difference betweem life and death.
"I can't prove to you that they would have died if they hadn't gotten the blood, but I can tell you from experience I think they would," she said. "If it's me, I want the blood."
Drake spoke about membership helicopters, which are now numerous in the state. Staff for Life is not a fee service.
She said the bill for Staff for Life can run from $7,000 to $10,000 and is normally covered by insurance, with patients responsible for any part not covered by insurance.
She also said car insurance normally pays for the bill also, if a patient is injured in an accident.