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Medevac Crews Save Lives, Too Often at Risk of Their Own

A personal injury colleague recently pointed me to an article commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Wake Forest Baptist Health AirCare air ambulance. It reminded how hard health care providers work to protect the lives of the people they serve, often while forgoing other higher-paying opportunities to employ their unique skills or regard to their personal safety.

As a personal injury attorney with offices in both Virginia and North Carolina, I know some of my clients might never have survived were it not for the emergency medical services and transport provided by AirCare or, based in Norfolk, VA, Sentara's Nightingale. The medical helicopters don't just fly to rural areas -- as AirCare does from Winston-Salem, NC, to, say, Salisbury, NC -- they also quickly transport critically injured victims within and between neighboring cities. This is what the Nightingale did in February 2011, when an 11-year-old girl was hit by a van while crossing Lynnhaven Parkway in Virginia Beach had mere minutes to make it from the crash scene to Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk.

Medevac crews also do their essential job at considerable risk to their personal safety. Like EMTs, police and firefighters who respond to traffic accidents or other incidents, the pilots and medical staff on helicopters put themselves directly in harm's way. And, too often, medevac helicopters crash, many times claiming the lives of the rescuers and that of the person who may have survived his or her initial trauma.

In a look at medical helicopters in July 2010, Popular Mechanics pored through data from the National Transportation Safety Board the National EMS Pilots Association. The magazine found that "working onboard a medical helicopter is the most dangerous profession in America, ... with a higher fatality rate than that of fishermen, loggers or steelworkers." Thirty-six years of reports revealed 264 medevac crashes and 264 deaths.

Causes for the deadly copter crashes cited in the PM article included aging equipment, operating in difficult locations and poor weather, and increased use of medevac as an alternative to ground transportation -- more flight hours create more opportunities for accidents. Regardless of the reason an air ambulance goes down, severe injuries and deaths often result.

I can't say what would make air ambulances safer. I can say that all efforts to do so need to be made so that these selfless pilots, EMTs, nurses and other medical personnel can continue to provide their life-saving services.


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