Staff for Life soars into its 36th year

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It’s not the kind of flight anyone really wants to take.

But in a situation involving life-threatening trauma or critical care, a trip on a Staff for Life helicopter is the best option. A trip from Jefferson City to Columbia is typically a 35-minute drive without traffic. A helicopter flight takes 15 minutes. That 20 minute time difference could save a life.

“Some of what we see is farm accidents where someone has been trapped under a turbine for several hours before someone was even able to call for help,” said flight nurse Silvia Tribble. “That’s where the timing matters.”

This month, MU Health Care’s University Hospital, which is a Level 1 trauma center, is marking its 35th year in the business of getting critically ill or injured people to the hospital on time.

University Hospital is the base for one of three Missouri Staff for Life operations. Staff for Life helicopters are the emergency helicopters used to transport patients to hospitals.

They’re equipped with ventilators, heart defibrillators, pacemakers, ultrasounds and intra-aortic balloon pumps. The helicopters are also equipped to stop a patient’s external bleeding, perform a blood transfusion, deliver a baby and replace plasma.

One of the Staff for Life helicopters based at University Hospital is a newer model that doesn’t need a tail rotor and is Instrument Flight Approved, which means it’s safer on the ground, and pilots are able to fly using their instruments and by judging weather conditions. This allows flight crews in these helicopters to travel in low visibility, allowing more patients to be treated.

The inside of a Staff for Life helicopter maximizes the small amount of space it has. Helicopter radio blocks, used to communicate with ground staff and other helicopters, are stacked among oxygen and heart monitors. Three staff seats and an anchored-down gurney sit among bags and bags of tied-down equipment that any patient in any scenario could ever need from an emergency flight.

Since keeping a trauma patient warm could be a matter of life or death, the internal helicopter temperature is often kept at 100 degrees, Tribble said. The space is so small, medical staff sitting across from each other touch knees. That tight space allows for medical staff to treat the patient without having to move too far from their seats.

Joan Drake has been a flight nurse since the 1980s and is chief flight nurse for MU Health Care. She said over time, there have been advances in the kinds of treatments flight nurses and paramedics can provide on an emergency helicopter.

“In the 1980s, the only difference from us and an ambulance was speed,” she said. “In the ’90s we became a flying emergency room. Now we are a flying critical care unit who can perform diagnostic procedures as well as treat patients.”

Drake said some of the advancements in flight technologies make Missouri’s helicopters the best in the nation.

Flight crews work in teams of three: a pilot, a nurse and a paramedic. Flight nurses have the same general qualifications as an intensive care unit nurse.

In her 24 years as a nurse, Tribble has spent the past three as a flight nurse. She and her colleagues travel in one of the 30 helicopters that operate in Missouri.

Pilots and helicopters are contracted out with several companies throughout Missouri. Kyle Rehagen flies for Air Methods and is based at University Hospital. He’s been a pilot for 17 years and says the helicopters fly an average of 500 to 600 flights a year.

911 operators send the closest, flight-ready helicopter to an emergency.

As the only person in the helicopter without medical training, Rehagen said he focuses on what the patient needs.

“Communication is the most important thing,” he said. “I may not know medical terminology, but after a while you can definitely tell when something is wrong and when I need to have a different plan. Everyone needs to be on the same page of music for a successful flight.”

Drake said she couldn’t provide an estimate of how much it costs a patient to be transported on Staff for Life but said there are copays, as there are for a typical ambulance. She also said there are membership programs, which allow people to be flown to a hospital by a company and be covered by the membership program. She also recommended checking your health insurance policy to see how much of the costs are covered.

According to estimates from Consumer Reports, the average cost of an emergency helicopter flight is about $30,000. Some membership plans can range from $40 to $80 per year.

Franklin Mitchell, a trauma surgeon, established the University Hospital’s helicopter service in 1982 after a study he initiated in 1980 that found 40 percent of trauma victims who died from serious injuries might have lived had they received rapid medical intervention.

“It’s a real privilege to be there and be able to help someone on the worst day of their life,” Tribble said.

Supervising editors are Katherine Reed and Tyler Wornell: reedkath@missouri.edu, 882-1792.

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