TGH helicopters are emergency rooms in the sky for residents in the Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County areas — and beyond.
Tampa General Hospital (TGH) is one of the state’s only Level I trauma and comprehensive burn centers. As part of its Aeromed Regional Transport Program, the hospital operates five aeromedical helicopters, each outfitted with advanced life-support equipment and specially trained medical teams. Aeromed helicopters transport patients from a vast region, including the state’s East Coast and all South Florida.
Critical injuries and illnesses can strike anywhere, including locations far from hospitals and health care professionals. That’s when TGH’s Aeromed program can make the difference between life and death. Last year, the program completed 1,916 transports. That included more than 800 adult trauma and 140 pediatric trauma patients, as well as people who suffered burns, heart attacks, strokes and other emergencies.
For the health care providers aboard, these emergency flights challenge their skill-sets in the best way.
“I love my job,” said Jimmy Holt, a veteran flight nurse and a TGH chief flight nurse of seven years. “You get up in the morning and you don’t know if you’ll be 40 miles away or in the middle of nowhere on a two-lane highway at an accident, giving blood while transporting someone to a surgeon. You have to be prepared for everything, every day.”
Holt recalled a Mother’s Day when his helicopter crew was called to help a 20-year-old man with a stab wound to the chest. A ground ambulance team was the first to respond and provided basic life support. The ground ambulance crew requested Aeromed with blood, breathing equipment and advanced medications. Holt provided critical care while transporting the patient to the nearest trauma center, where a cardiothoracic surgeon was successfully able to stop the bleeding, saving the patient’s life. He was discharged a week later, thanks to the close integration of the ground ambulance, the Aeromed crew and the ever-ready trauma center.
“Every shift, there’s something like that,” Holt said. “That’s the fulfilling part, getting to affect somebody else’s life and that of their family’s as well.”
The medical teams on the Aeromed flights must have advanced critical care training and experience, and be able to treat patients of all ages, including infants. Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) patients are among those transported, often to TGH, for advanced care.
“It is imperative that our air transport medical services function at this high level,” said Kelly Cullen, TGH’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
Aeromed teams are also qualified to transport patients requiring a form of artificial life support called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). ECMO machines keep blood pumping and oxygenated when the heart and lungs aren’t functioning properly. This type of advanced treatment is not typically available in ground ambulances or other air medical programs, and focuses on stabilizing patients and getting them to advanced cardiac centers, like TGH, as quickly as possible.
“I have great respect for all our ground partners,” Holt said. “We serve different purposes. We are a tiny emergency department out in the field. We do a lot of what emergency room doctors do to alleviate problems that would cause someone to perish.”
TGH’s Aeromed program has been a four-time recipient of a full, three-year accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS). This recognition is considered the gold standard for patient care in the transport setting. Operating a service like this is costly but vital, noted Michele Moran, TGH’s senior director of emergency services.
“John Couris, our president and CEO, is a big believer in taking care of everyone, every day, no matter the circumstances,” she said. “A lot of communities really rely on us because of our training and expertise. If it were someone I loved out in an area that doesn’t have a large medical center but needed care, I would want a team of experts like this to bring it to them.”