Have you ever noticed the blue helicopters in the sky above the Miami Valley? Those are CareFlights, air ambulances from the Miami Valley Hospital. Rocky Blazer, a listener from Springfield, says they seem to fly out a lot, and asked why the hospital would decide to send out a CareFlight, rather than a traditional ambulance. I drove down to the hospital’s central campus in Dayton to investigate.
On the helipad
A heavy double door leads out to the helipad at the Miami Valley Hospital. It’s an overcast day, but I can still see the tree-covered hills on the other side of the highway. Pilot Earl Daniels leads me over to the clean-looking blue helicopter and helps me into the cockpit.
Inside, every surface is covered by a gauge or dial or GPS screen. Daniels tells me they need all that equipment when there’s low visibility.
“Just like your big airliners,” he says, “We fly around in the clouds based on our radio instruments. If it’s an instrument-type flight, [the helicopter] is climbing with whatever air speed and altitude I have programmed into it.”
Mandy Via, a flight nurse and the outreach manager for CareFlight, leads me around back to the cabin for the patients and nurses. It’s got a low ceiling, but it’s pretty spacious. There’s room for two stretchers, oxygen tanks and other equipment, and low chairs for the nurses.
“It can carry two patients,” Daniels explains. “We can carry a 750-pound patient if needed.”
Conditions for patients and nurses are often darker and noisier than on the ground. Daniels says that white light interferes with pilots’ night vision goggles, so nurses usually work with a blue or green light in the cabin when helicopters fly at night.
I ask about a pair of noise-cancelling headphones on the other side of the cabin. “We put those on the patient to help reduce the noise they’re exposed to during transport,” Via explains.
Back in her office, Via tells me that, to be a flight nurse, you have to know almost as much about flying as you do about nursing.
“People don’t realize—it’s also aviation, it’s safety. You’re wearing night vision goggles, you’re training to look for obstacles in the sky, you’re operating radios, you’re calling in a radio report on your patient that you just met five minutes ago. It’s like nursing, but it’s multitasking to the next degree.”
Why send out a CareFlight?
But why would the hospital or emergency medical service send out a CareFlight instead of an ambulance? Via says it’s either a patient’s doctor or an emergency medical worker at the scene of an accident that makes the call to CareFlight. The decision to call is less about what kind of medical problems patients have, and more about just how quickly they need to get to the hospital.
“Time is muscle,” she says, adding, “We transport everybody. We transport pregnancy all the way up to the realm of…all of it. You have your trauma patients you see from a scene, but we’ll also fly to your house if you’re having a heart attack.”
They also use CareFlights when patients need to go to hospitals outside the Miami Valley.
“We do a lot of inter-facility transports as well,” Via explains. “If they need to go to Cleveland because that’s where their transplant physician is, then they’re going to go to Cleveland.”
Daniels adds, “If we cruise at 150 knots, which is about 173 miles per hour, I can reach Cleveland in an hour, Lexington in 40 minutes, Indianapolis in about 40 to 45 minutes, and I’ve been to all those destinations, and we do them quite often.”
“It takes hundreds of people”
Flights are usually pretty quick, but Via says there’s a strong relationship between flight nurses and patients that doesn’t end when the helicopter lands.
“When I’m flying with a patient,” she says, “I’m talking to them. I always put my hand on their shoulder; I’m telling them ‘This is what’s going on.’ You meet them sometimes on the worst day of their life, and you will build a relationship. We have some that come back up and visit. Some of us have flown patients in our own community, so we get to see them back in the community with their family and know that we were a part of helping them get back there.”
The CareFlight staff are only a small part of the huge team it takes to rehabilitate a patient. Via explains that, between nurses, physicians, physical therapists, occupational therapists, dietary specialists, and others, “It takes hundreds of people.”
But playing even a small part means a lot of work. Flights, combined with ground ambulances, transported 5,480 patients last year, and Via told me it’s not unusual for CareFlight’s three helicopters to be busy all day.
Read a Q and A with pilot Earl Daniels and flight nurse Donna Shiverdecker here.
Check out Air Currents, a magazine produced by the CareFlight staff here.
WYSO Curious is our occasional series about your questions and curiosities—let us know what you are curious about in the Miami Valley, and your question could get answered by a WYSO reporter. WYSO Curious is a partnership with Hearken, founded by Jennifer Brandel based on her work at Curious City/WBEZ Chicago.