Your emergency room in the sky

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Editorial by Dr. Dar Kavouspour


You may not know this, but every day, across America, medical professionals in helicopters are saving lives.

We all have seen emergency rooms in hospitals – this is where the bulk of life-saving urgent care is performed every hour of every day, of course.

But what happens if you live in a rural area where you may be hours away from a hospital or trauma center? What happens after a car accident on a road outside of town? A few minutes can make the difference between life and death.

In my work, as a trauma surgeon in Texas, I see countlesspatients in urgent situations.

And the status of a patient when they arrive at our facility often determines whether we can save them.

This is what makes air medical transport so vital.

When a person suffers a life-threatening event or traumatic injury, it is crucial that medical personnel and our first responders can treat the patient in a timely mannerafter the accident has occurred. In emergency situations, how quickly you can receive medical attention can mean the difference between life and death.

The reality is that if you are bleeding as a result of a major injury, if you are a stroke patient, heart attack patient or burn patient, every minute counts.

As Glenn Anderson, Southeast Texas Air Rescue program director has said, “We don’t have to stop at any traffic lights or follow the roads. It’s basically a straight shot at about 150 mph.”

In some remote parts of Texas, it can take an ambulance 45 minutes to arrive at an accident. A medical helicopter can arrive in a third of the time, almost anywhere in the state, from Amarillo to Harlingen, from Texarkana to El Paso and everywhere in between.

And the service is getting better. Today, on board a medical helicopter, patients can receive blood through the miracle of technology. “Blood on Board,” a secure, sanitary, new service is going to save more lives. The month of January is a particularly good time to raise awareness of this since it is National Blood Donor Month.

In my six-county region of Southeast Texas, I can attest firsthand that air rescue is saving lives every day.

Air medical helicopters bring highly trained medical personnel, made up of a pilot, a nurse, and a paramedic, to treat patients quickly, allowing them to stabilize the patient. Both the nurse and the paramedic are required to have at least five years of critical care experience. The nurse must also have previous emergency room experience and the paramedic must have previous 911 experience.

Nine out of every ten of these folks are Veterans of America’s Armed Forces. They’re people who volunteered to serve our Nation and they felt that sense of duty to help others when they returned home.

Air medical transport is a great landing spot for our Veterans. They’re trained for it. They’re good at it. And we all benefit.

You may be wondering what an Air Rescue operation looks like. I’ll explain how it works in my region.

When an air medical transport helicopter lands at the scene, their team receives a detailed report and the patient is immediately loaded onto a stretcher to receive critical care.

Everything their team needs is within arm’s reach on the helicopter.

After the helicopter goes airborne, if the patient should be treated at our hospital, the pilot will call us and issue a trauma alert.

As soon as that happens, the dispatch person on duty in our ER pushes a button. Automatically it goes to my trauma beeper and 30 seconds later, I get a page. I drop everything and come to the hospital.

After the helicopter lands, the patient is brought to the ER on a gurney, where trauma physicians take over. It’s a very smooth transition with no gap.

Unless they have another flight, the Southeast Texas Air Rescue team will stay and help the trauma team.

In Southeast Texas, the Air Rescue team generally transports 500-600 patients per year and in my twenty-one years of experience, I can confidently say that the survival rate for patients brought in by air medical transport versus ambulance is higher. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) entitled, “Association Between Helicopter vs. Ground Emergency Medical Services and Survival for Adults with Major Trauma,” independently confirms my belief.

A study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that patients transported by helicopter were 16-percent more likely to be discharged from the hospital than those who were transported by ambulance.

Trauma doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter what race you are, whether you’re rich or poor, young or old. It is the No. 1 cause of death for those us up to the age of 44 in this country. Car, four-wheeler, or motorcycle accidents, gunshot or stab wounds, these are the cases I deal with virtually every day.

After age 44, trauma is the third leading cause of death, only surpassed by heart attack and cancer. So when you look at the whole picture, from the time you are born to the time you pass away, trauma is the leading cause of death.

All things considered. Our community in southeast Texas is lucky to have air medical rescue teams ready and waiting to save lives. It’s key that we work hard to preserve this life-saving service for all Texans.


Dr. Dar Kavouspour is a Trauma Surgeon and Assistant Director of Trauma at Christus Southeast Texas – St. Elizabeth.