Summer 2009

New Helicopter Speeds Emergency Transport

As pediatric beds disappear from California hospitals, the need for expert emergency transport to rush severely ill children to specialty care heightens. In response, UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital has added a state-of-the-art helicopter air ambulance to its fleet. That fleet, which also includes a dedicated ground ambulance and a fixed-wing aircraft, is one of the few transport programs in the region to work with critically ill pediatric and neonatal patients.

"The new helicopter enables us to get to many places sooner and be in and out the door faster," says Christa Thomas, R.N., patient care manager of the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital transport team.

Expert Team with Expert Equipment

Adding a helicopter became possible when CALSTAR, a nonprofit air ambulance organization, agreed to dedicate one of its newly purchased MD 902 Explorers exclusively to UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital. CALSTAR also agreed to retrofit the craft for the hospital's specialized equipment and a team of pediatric and neonatal critical care experts.

"Collectively, the physicians, nurse practitioners and nurses on our team have hundreds of years of pediatric and neonatal experience as well as ongoing access to pediatric specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital," says Thomas. "That's important because this is urgent-type care, where sometimes you need to improvise." The entire crew received additional training in everything from how to approach the vehicle to looking for obstacles in flight, flight physiology and communication with helmet microphones.

The specialty equipment includes a transport incubator, a dedicated critical care stretcher with nitric oxide therapy, and the ability to do limited lab work such as blood gases and electrolytes. "CALSTAR's retrofitting allows us to slide all our specialty equipment in and out, with our goal to be en route in 30 minutes or less," Thomas says.

The helicopter itself contains all of the latest safety equipment recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board and is relatively quiet, due to robust noise mitigation and the absence of a tail rotor.

How the Transport System Works

Use of the craft depends on strict clinical criteria as well as on weather conditions, distance — there is about a 150-mile radius — and the presence of a helipad at the referring hospital. "We estimate we'll use it about 30 to 40 times a month," Thomas says. An added benefit is that landing on a helipad at the referring hospital means the UCSF team will not have to tie up local ambulances for transport to and from an airport.

When referring physicians need transport, they should call the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Access Center at (877) UC–CHILD or (877) 822–4453 — which is staffed 24/7 by a pediatric critical care nurse. "We triage, get in contact with the appropriate attending and determine whether transport needs to take place," Thomas says.

If the helicopter is the choice, the transport team will meet the helicopter at San Francisco International Airport and travel from there. When the new hospital at Mission Bay opens in 2014, a proposed helipad would enable the team to depart immediately from there.

For more information, contact Christa Thomas at (415) 353-1246.

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