TraumaOne Flight Services flies through its first 30 years

TraumaOne Flight Services flies through its first 30 years

Trauma, which does not discriminate, can happen to anyone at a moment’s notice.

For those suddenly encountering a life-threatening situation, survival can hinge on the speed in which treatment is delivered. One minute can mean the difference between life and death.

Today, thanks to advances in aviation, modern medical helicopters provide swift access to the scene of an accident, lifting critically ill patients above traffic-clogged roads to trauma centers miles away.

“The ‘golden hour’ is the first 60 minutes,” said Chad E. McIntyre, Manager of TraumaOne Flight services at UF Health. “For stroke, heart attacks and trauma you’ve got to resuscitate before this time. But we call it the platinum 10 minutes; the first 10 minutes are the most critical. We can do that with a chopper flying in at 140 mph, treating them, and getting them out of there,” said McIntyre, who is also a National EMS Advisory Council Air Medical representative.

TraumaOne Flight Services recently celebrated 30 years as one of the region’s main lifelines for critically ill patients with a celebration on its 8th Street campus Aug. 28. Working in conjunction with Jacksonville’s only Level 1 trauma care center, UF Health Jacksonville, which was originally named University Health, TraumaOne’s helicopter transport teams are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Combat triage genesis for trauma centers

The development of University Hospital’s trauma services originated from a study funded by the Florida Medical Association in the late 1970s or early 1980s, said Joseph Tepas III of Riverside, Chief of Pediatric Surgery at UF Health Jacksonville. Dr. Ray Alexander, former Chief of Surgery and Medical Director of the trauma program at University Health Jacksonville, was the study’s principal investigator.

“Thirty years ago, we just finished Vietnam and had developed lifting people out of combat conditions,” Tepas said. “A lot of combat pilots and medics came back to work in this field. Replicating what trauma centers did in Vietnam is what we looked at – how we could benefit from such a system.”

“We had a large metropolitan area with no organized trauma center,” said Dr. David Vukich, Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Florida. “Because of support from University Hospital and city support, funds were appropriated, along with some state funding, for (an) inner-city safety-net hospital.”

TraumaOne was born when Vukich, Alexander and their colleague, Dr. James Vretis II, went shopping for a helicopter.

It was 1984 or 1985 when the trio flew to Pennsylvania to see an MBB BK117 helicopter being prepared for medical service.

“That’s when it started, when we were actually shopping for a helicopter,” Vukich said, noting that Alexander deserved most of the credit. “He’s the one who had the vision and managed to get this all done with not a lot of resources,” said Vukich.

“He was a good trauma center leader, a great clinician, and a great marketer. We had TraumaOne pins we wore on our lapels. Whenever Ray met someone, he wouldn’t reach in his pocket for one to give; he’d remove the pin from his lapel and place it on theirs,” Vukich said, noting Alexander died in 1992.

Vukich, Alexander, and Vretis served as the first three TraumaOne Flight Services pilots and crewmembers. Soon a dozen more crewmembers were brought in to assist.

Pilots still saving lives

Early on it seemed more effective to have doctors remain at the hospital rather try to work in the air, said Tepas. Well-trained flight medics and nurses were sent out instead.

One original TraumaOne pilot is still on duty today. John Barber, founder of the National EMS Pilot’s Association, flies for the service out of Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine. Barber served in Vietnam in the early 1970s, then transferred his military expertise into civilian work.

“I enjoy it,” Barber said, “It’s a pretty good life for a pilot. You feel great because you’re going out and saving lives.”

The original TraumaOne helicopter was a BK117, which was jointly developed by Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm of Germany and Kawasaki of Japan. It featured a smaller rotor disk with a rigid blade system. Present on medical helicopters today, those features facilitate landings in limited access areas. When on the ground, the higher rotor blade tips prevent injuries to emergency personnel on the scene.

“It was the newest, best thing to have in aviation. Back then it was the aircraft to have,” Barber said.

From trailblazer to staple

Though the number of trauma centers nationwide increased in the 1980s and 1990s, many have subsequently closed due to expenses and a lack of trained personnel.

“Trauma centers require expensive and extensive commitment,” Tepas said. “Physicians who are up all night can’t take care of their regular patients the next day, and (emergency) payments to physicians were not clear.”

Today, TraumaOne at UF Health Jacksonville continues to be the only Level 1 trauma center in Northeast Florida.

In 2013, TraumaOne increased its fleet when Med-Trans Air Medical Transport of Dallas, Texas, delivered a Bell 407 and two Eurocopter EC135 helicopters. These helicopters allow TraumaOne to provide a “triad of care” to hospitals and EMS providers within a 150-mile radius of its Florida flight centers in St. Augustine, Yulee, and Lake City.

With three new helicopters at the ready, TraumaOne Flight Services has cut flight times in half compared to 1985, when its only helicopter was stationed on top of Shands Jacksonville Medical Center.

Each helicopter’s FAA tail identification bears the initials of one of the program’s founders, with 655 indicating the street number of UF Health Jacksonville: N655JT – James Tepas, III; N655RA – Ray Alexander; and R655DV – David Vukich.

Each helicopter has a crew, which is required to be at the top of their game every time, McIntyre said. These highly trained professionals allow people who ordinarily would not survive, to walk out of the hospital without the use of a wheelchair or other transportation, he said.

Night vision, advanced GPS systems, community-provided landing zones, larger and more technologically advanced operational control centers, and less fatiguing on-and-off-duty hours for pilots and crew, lead to safer, faster flights than in the past, Barber said.

Crews today have closer medical control from doctors qualifying them to clear airways or provide medication on the scene that can’t be administered by paramedics or fire personnel, McIntyre said.

TraumaOne Flight services are not publicly funded in Florida, McIntyre said. Flight program funding is a shared risk between Med-Trans Corporation, and TraumaOne. Med-Trans Corporation supplies the helicopters and pilots, pays for their living quarters, and handles billing. TraumaOne provides medical oversight.

Trauma1_JimAkers “Early on, there wasn’t a book on how to do this and keep it safe for the crew and pilots,” Vukich said. “People who started (the program) were pioneers and, today, a lot of risk has been engineered out of all areas. It’s matured, this part of the industry, and has become a staple. Back then it was remarkable. We have a great sense of pride to make something that wasn’t cookbook and we’re proud of our work,” he said.

Curry Pajcic, Ortega resident and personal injury lawyer at Pajcic & Pajcic, said he is impressed with the work TraumaOne at UFHealth Jacksonville does. “They treat my clients and do a tremendous job. I know what caring and wonderful people they are, and I’ve seen them perform miracles.”

Pajcic’s firm sponsors Night of Heroes, an annual gala that honors doctors and medical staff who improve the outcome of trauma patients and raises funds to support TraumaOne. “It’s an honor to support them,” he said. “These are state employees who have chosen to serve, and it’s an honor to support them with funds to help buy needed equipment.”

For more photos of the 30th anniversary reception in honor of TraumaOne’s Flight Program, click here.

By Vince Iampietro
Resident Community News

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