Air ambulance moves closer to county
Sometimes, getting where you need to be may mean the difference between life and death.
That's where a service such as Life Star air ambulance comes in. But Life Star is about much more than speed, said Greg Hildenbrand, director.
Life Star, a 14-year-old project of two Topeka hospitals, Stormont-Vail and St. Francis, since March from about 9 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., has been located at the Lawrence airport, about 13 miles from Tonganoxie.
"People focus on the speed of the helicopter," Hildenbrand said. "The speed is important, but the main advantage is the care that the person receives once we get there."
Nurses and paramedics with Life Star have to have a minimum of three years experience with critical care or emergency medical services.
"Most of our people have 10 to 15 years experience," Hildenbrand said. "There are very few conditions that they won't know how to respond to. We can fly toward the hospital and start the treatment that they should be receiving. Rather than just flying back as quickly as possible, hopefully, they're starting to heal on the way back. That to me is the biggest advantage."
Charlie Conrad, director of Leavenworth County's Emergency Medical Service, said medical care given during transport can save lives, particularly in the event of accidental injuries.
"When you're talking about trauma, you're talking about the golden hour," Conrad said. "From the time the accident happens if you can put them on a surgery room table within 60 minutes, our goal of saving lives is more obtainable."
Until March, the helicopter had been stationed in Topeka during the day.
But most of their calls were taking the air ambulance to Douglas, Jefferson and Franklin counties, as well as western Leavenworth County.
"By moving to Douglas County during the day, it puts us in the middle of where most of our calls are from this part of the state," Hildenbrand said.
After leaving Lawrence each evening, the helicopter is stationed in Topeka.
A year ago, Life Star began keeping a helicopter in Junction City. Overall, the two bases cover 33 counties in Kansas, extending as far west as Salina.
Competition is partly why Life Star set up a helicopter in Junction City.
"We wanted to discourage anybody else from wanting to start up here," he said.
Conrad said now that Life Star is based in Lawrence during the day, this will be the nearest air ambulance service for this area.
Other services who can assist in this area, Conrad said, are LifeNet in Olathe, and Lifefight-Eagle, based at the downtown Kansas City, Mo., airport.
The costs of operating an air ambulance are high, Hildenbrand said.
"It costs so much money to have a helicopter ready to fly and have it staffed," Hildenbrand said. "You always have to have a pilot, nurse and paramedic staffed round the clock."
The service operates on a $2.6 million budget. There is a high overhead.
"If we didn't fly at all it would probably cost us $2 million just to have everything available," Hildenbrand said.
The average ticket for an air ambulance ride is about $5,000. The lack of ability to pay means little at Life Star.
"We work with people if they can't pay," Hildenbrand said. "We're a not-for-profit corporation and we can do charitable write-offs. We also have a lot of people paying $5 or $10 every month and they'll probably never pay it off but they want to pay on it."
No one is charged if Life Star is called to a scene and it turns out the service is not needed, he said.
In order to be flown, people must be seriously ill or injured.
"We only fly the sickest of the sick," Hildenbrand said.
About a third of the patients have been injured in accidents, another third are cardiac patients, and the rest usually involve strokes, respiratory problems, overdoses and high-risk obstetrics. Of those, Hildenbrand said, about 15 percent are children.
The helicopters, which can travel up to 150 mph, can't fly in all kinds of weather. The cloud ceiling must be higher than 1,000 feet, visibility must be at least two miles at 1,000 feet during the day or three miles at night, and the helicopters don't fly in thunderstorms or ice. Also, he said, wind gusts and temperatures below 35 degrees can ground the helicopter.
This cuts into business, Hildenbrand said.
"We will lose about 15 to 20 percent of our requests a year because of weather," Hildenbrand said.
So far, Life Star hasn't had any helicopter accidents.
The service only hires pilots who have at least 3,000 flight hours.
"Most of our pilots have 7,000 or 8,000 hours," Hildenbrand said. "The important thing is they need to have lots of experience flying helicopters in lots of different conditions and reacting to things that happen need to be second nature with them and that only comes with experience."