St. Mary’s adds safer, less costly CareFlight helicopter

Flight Paramedic Robert Thomason steps away from the Eurocopter AS 350 AStar CareFlight helicopter on the landing pad at St. Mary’s Hospital. The new aircraft replaces St. Mary’s twin-blade that was able to carry up to two patients. .



■  An autopilot system

■ An integrated satellite phone and 800 MHz radio system

■ An upgraded back-up hydraulic system

■ A wire cutter safety system

■ Enhanced terrain and traffic alert systems

St. Mary’s Hospital showed off a $2.75 million upgrade to its trio of CareFlight vehicles Thursday: A single-blade Eurocopter AS 350 AStar helicopter hospital officials say carries a single patient more safely and at less cost.

The new aircraft replaces St. Mary’s twin-blade that was able to carry up to two patients. The old bird, a Bell 412 used by St. Mary’s for 12 years, is currently flying rescue missions in Saudi Arabia, St. Mary’s President and CEO Mike McBride said.

The purchase means the hospital’s CareFlight program will spend about half as much on fuel and daily maintenance for the new AS 350 AStar helicopter as it did before, McBride said.

The savings may not make it to the bottom line of a single patient’s hospital bill, but it will reduce the hospital’s overall costs, which helps keep the lid on fee increases in the future, he said.

Only about 2 percent of the flights the former twin blade helicopter made required the two-patient capacity, so impact on patients will be minimal, McBride said.

If more than one patient must be transported, St. Mary’s Level II Trauma team will coordinate with other hospitals in the region that offer rescue flights, including Montrose Memorial Hospital and Moab Regional Hospital, said Kathy Shoemaker, chief flight registered and a 27-year veteran of the St. Mary’s CareFlight service.

“The multi-patient helicopter was very expensive to operate,” Shoemaker said. “It’s operational expenses are very expensive,” including daily maintenance performed exclusively in the fully-equipped hangar on the 14th floor.

“As things become more lean in the medical field, for us to continue to provide critical care to the citizens of western Colorado, we really felt like we needed to respond accordingly,” she said.

The slightly used 2007 AStar was purchased at a cost of $2.5 million nearly two years ago.

In the interim, the hospital added $250,000 worth of improvements that make flights safer, like auto-pilot, helmets equipped with night vision and enhanced terrain and traffic alert systems.

The improved terrain and traffic alert systems come in handy when a landing on Interstate 70 is necessary, flight nurse Tom Feller said.

Another safety system helps prevent low-hanging, unseen power lines or other wires from downing the aircraft. Should the helicopter inadvertently fly into a line, a blade at the front, above the cockpit, will cut it, Shoemaker said.

Custom mounts at a cost of up to $20,000 each were added to accommodate St. Mary’s unique CareFlight medical equipment and enhanced capabilities, she said.

The AStar can cover a range of 300 to 350 miles at 140 mph and enjoys a 15,000-foot service ceiling, which means it is ready for high-altitude retrievals, but only under safe conditions.

“We’re not doing anyone any good if something bad happens,” Feller said. “(The flight crew has) a conversation to decide” if a particular rescue is safe enough to fly to.

Between the time the old helicopter was sold and the new one was outfitted, St. Mary’s leased a helicopter to make rescue flights, hospital spokeswoman Deborah Dawes said. 

Because of their extensive training, flight nurses are more independent and able to make medical decisions on the scene. They take all steps necessary to stabilize the patient and communicate to the hospital what the medical needs are so preparations for the patient’s arrival can be made, she said.

“We have a Level II Trauma system here, a heart attack alert system and a stroke alert system,” Shoemaker said. “So, as soon as they’re picking up the patient, they are alerting the hospital that these things are coming. The flight nurse has already evaluated them,” saving time for the doctor who will eventually treat them.

St. Mary’s CareFlight is a team of critical care trained professionals who use air and ground transport, Dawes said.

In operation since 1976, the service is available 24 hours a day all year, she said.

In addition to the helicopter, CareFlight maintains a Beechcraft King Air 200, a twin-engine, turboprop fixed-wing aircraft, equipped to transport up to two patients and four staff members, according to the hospital’s website.

The airplane, which has a maximum altitude of 31,000 feet and a speed of 300 miles an hour, is used to meet and transport critically ill patients from small, local airports that have shorter runways, Shoemaker said.

The third vehicle in the CareFlight fleet is a specially-equipped ground vehicle that serves as an ambulance, she said.


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