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Life Flight Celebrates 35 Years of Fixed-Wing Service

fixed_wing_serviceMemorial Hermann Life Flight, the pioneering critical care air medical transport service that is lauded as the industry leader in aviation safety and clinical care, is celebrating 35 years of providing fixed-wing service to transport critically ill and injured patients around the globe. The adjunct program to the rotor wing service was born out of a need to transport patients from distances farther than 150 miles, according to Georgiann “Georgie” Brown, RN, chief flight nurse, and the specially outfitted jets are capable of going anywhere in the world that is politically safe.

“We turn these aircraft into a traveling ICU complete with ventilators, pumps and monitoring,” said Brown. “We have used the same trusted vendor for years with specially trained pilots who are well versed in our requirements for patient safety.” Most commonly patients are transported by Learjet, but sometimes larger jets are used for trips overseas, she added. The aircraft are the same used for private charter, but the seats are removed. An apparatus that attaches to the floor accommodates all the necessary equipment for an ICU environment, including oxygen, electricity and suction. A stretcher locks on top of the apparatus so the patient can be easily and safely transported in and out of the aircraft.

The care team on each flight consists of both a registered nurse (all of whom are also trained paramedics) and a paramedic. For left ventricular assist device (LVAD) or balloon pump patients, a perfusionist or other circulatory support professional accompanies the team. In addition, they are fully equipped to transport neonate and pediatric patients, with rotating neonate and pediatric flight nurses on call for those flights.

“Many years ago we owned our own planes, but this is a much more cost-effective way of providing the service,” said Brown. The team averages 20 patients per year for transport, and has traveled as far as Hong Kong, Croatia, Spain and Brazil. Perhaps most famously, in 2011 the Life Flight crew brought former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords to the neurotrauma intensive care unit at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center from Tucson after she was shot several times at close range by a constituent.

“Our flight team is highly trained in flight physiology, such as how very dry conditions, pressure changes, vibration and noise affect the patient,” said Brown. “Our No. 1 priority is to maintain the integrity of the ICU environment, and that means decreasing the stress of the patient as much as possible. Getting patients in and out is important – extreme pressure changes can make their condition worsen, particularly for the very young, the very old and critical cardiac patients.” Brown, who has been a member of the Life Flight team since 1989, remembers a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the fixed-wing service flew three or four missions per week. She credits advancements in health care around the world with making such a large number of trips unnecessary today.

“There are so many things we can do now on an aircraft to create a similar environment to the ICU,” said Brown. “We recently started providing extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) on our rotor-wing aircraft, and the goal is to provide the same service on fixed-wing aircraft soon.” The fixed-wing service is paid for in advance by the patient or family, and the passenger can be transferred to any hospital. “Many of the patients we transfer come to Memorial Hermann, but we also transport patients to other hospitals in the Texas Medical Center,” said Brown.