Months after hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, two bridges that connect Biloxi to New Orleans are still not accessible. Emory Flight, a partnership with Life Net Medical Services, has been supporting FEMA in missions to transport seriously ill or injured patients while the bridges that once gave them quick access to urgent medical care in New Orleans are being repaired. Long after many Americans have stopped thinking about Katrina, some Emory Flight medical personnel are still living in tents, sleeping on cots, eating in mess halls, and using outdoor showers.
"This is about as close to a modern-day M.A.S.H. unit as you can get," says John C. Holland, aviation director for Emory Flight's southeast region. "The flying area that we have set up is so remote that we could not even get roads on GPS."
Emory Flight began its mission immediately after Katrina hit, rescuing and transporting victims to safety. Since then, FEMA has added follow-on missions for Emory Flight to set up flying areas where they can quickly respond to patients who need to get to an emergency room. The distance would take an hour-and-a-half by car, but only seven minutes by helicopter.
"In one incident, we were returning to the unit after dropping off some patients when we noticed there had been a truck accident," explains Col. Holland. "When we landed, we found five people injured. Fortunately, we were able to get those people to the hospital by air. In situations like that, getting a patient treated quickly can mean life or death. Travel by ambulance may not have gotten them there in time."
Emory Flight helicopters have been staffed by volunteer Emory Flight medical personnel for the last three FEMA missions. The volunteers have been assigned to the Gulf for a week at a time, while the staff members who stay behind volunteer to pick up the slack. For this most recent mission, which has been extended for about one year, medical personnel have been recruited from around the country.
"Our employees have been stretched pretty thin over the last several months, so we have begun to train other medical professionals to staff the helicopters. However, we have been able to provide the use of our most modern long-range aircraft," says Col. Holland, "and we intend to continue to help out in any way we can, as long as we are needed."
Emory Flight is a partnership that combines staff trained by Emory Emergency Medicine faculty with LifeNet helicopter services. Each helicopter is designed as an airborne critical care unit, staffed by a pilot, nurse and paramedic, and linked through advanced technology communications to physician specialists in the receiving hospital or facility. Care begins the moment the patient is placed on the helicopter. The medical director of the Emory Flight program is Alexander Isakov, MD, an experienced flight physician and assistant professor in Emory University School of Medicine's Department of Emergency Medicine.
LifeNet is owned by Rocky Mountain Helicopters, which has been associated with the air medical industry for over 25 years. The Denver company was the provider of choice of the first aeromedical transport program in the United States. It currently operates aircraft at 59 locations throughout the United States and Puerto Rico and employs over 750 personnel nationwide, including medical staff.