By JAMES E. CASTO
For The State Journal
When minutes matter, a quick helicopter flight can spell the difference between life and death for a critically ill or injured patient. Now HealthNet Aeromedical Services has added four of the latest model helicopters to its fleet.
The new helicopters are Eurocopter EC-130s, a model that offers more space for patient care and the latest technology to aid flight nurses and crew members.
"The new EC-130 helicopters add a new dimension to HealthNet's legacy of service to the region," said Clinton Burley, HealthNet's president and CEO. "They offer increased room for patient care and equipment, a lower nose signature and enhanced safety features."
One of the new $2.7 million helicopters was displayed at a news conference this month at Cabell Huntington Hospital. HealthNet and Cabell Huntington have a long-standing partnership that dates back to the 1980s.
The U.S. military was the first to employ helicopters for medical purposes, first in Korea and then in Vietnam.
In Korea, the small choppers of the day were used strictly as aerial ambulances, speeding the wounded to treatment. But in Vietnam, the larger helicopters in use by then were big enough that trained medical personnel could be carried aboard, providing life-saving treatment for the wounded while they were still in the air. Many who might otherwise have died owed their lives to the helicopters and their crews.
That lesson wasn't lost on doctors and hospitals here at home who quickly saw that helicopters could be enormously valuable in rushing patients to the hospital from an accident scene or airlifting them from a small hospital to a larger hospital when they needed specialized care.
Obviously, helicopters carry a special appeal in a mountainous state such as West Virginia, where an ambulance trip over winding two-lane roads can take hours.
In the 1970s, West Virginia National Guard helicopters were frequently used to airlift patients. But with no flight crews on standby duty, Guard members had to be summoned from their homes for each flight, posing significant delays for missions where every minute counted.
Beginning in 1978, the West Virginia State Police began offering medical transport by helicopter. But the service was underfunded and faced an uncertain fiscal future.
Determined to remove that uncertainty, the Charleston Area Medical Center and West Virginia University Hospitals in Morgantown devised a plan to promote the essential service. HealthNet was born in the summer of 1986, with two helicopters, one based in Charleston and one in Morgantown. Cabell Huntington joined HealthNet the following year.
"HealthNet has been providing safe transport and lifesaving care to our patients since their first helicopter was based at Cabell Huntington Hospital in 1987," said Brent Marsteller, president and CEO of Cabell Huntington. "This new aircraft provides us with an enhanced level of service for our patients, and it is evidence of the strong working partnership Cabell Huntington Hospital has maintained with HealthNet as we have grown together over the years."
The new EC-130s provide an additional 18 inches in width. That may not seem like much, but it gives medical crews more room to work and even enables a medical specialist to join those on board when cases call for that level of care.
Two of the four new helicopters are already in service. One is based at Hamlin and another in Martin County, Ky. A third will be based at Portsmouth, Ohio, and a fourth will provide the service a spare. In addition to Hamlin, Martin County and Portsmouth, HealthNet operates from bases in Morgantown, Ripley, Beckley, Buckhannon and Martinsburg. Since it began operation in 1986, it has successfully completed 70,000 patient missions.