It started as a summer afternoon pool party.
But on June 11, Crystal Hedrick, 12, ended up at Bayfront Medical Center, the 10,000th patient to be transported on the hospital's emergency trauma helicopter, Bayflite.
After diving into shallow water in her backyard pool, Crystal struck her head on the bottom. Her mother, Brenda Bowers, immediately called 911. Concerned about Crystal's complaints of pain and tenderness in her back, the ground ambulance crew that arrived decided to call Bayflite.
"She couldn't hold her head up," Ms. Bowers said.
Within 15 minutes of leaving the ground, Crystal landed at Bayfront. Following in her car from their New Port Richey home, Ms. Bowers arrived in St. Petersburg an hour later, after X-rays already had determined Crystal had broken her fifth vertebra.
"The whole gamut of trauma has to do with time, getting them to a close facility, a skilled facility in the shortest amount of time," said Maurice Brazil, Bayflite's chief flight nurse.
Trauma experts refer to this as the golden hour, the first 60 minutes after a patient has been injured. Getting a victim to emergency care within this time period can be critical to recovery for trauma patients.
Modeled after the MASH and Medevac units used during the Korean and Vietnam wars, air ambulances soon became critical elements in trauma care.
"Several studies showed there was a decrease of 52 percent of morbidity and mortality with the quick use of Medevac," Brazil said.
Maryland's state police division began operating the nation's first air ambulance in 1971. The following year, St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver, Colo., became the first civilian-run service.
Bayflite launched in 1986 and was the first for the Tampa Bay area. It represents one of the 18 services in Florida that can respond directly to accident scenes.
"Ultimately our goal is to have 100 percent coverage for the state of Florida," said Mary Crew, senior human services specialist for the state's Emergency Medical Services. Crew estimates they are able to respond with air ambulances to approximately 90 to 95 percent of the state. In addition to being able to get victims to emergency care faster, air crews have advanced training and skills that allow them to perform minor surgical techniques such as inserting chest tubes and central IVs.
The Bayflite program has served as a trend-setter for others in the state by being the first to use paralytics, a type of drug that relaxes a patient's muscles, allowing a breathing tube to be inserted.
It also is the only air ambulance that continuously carries blood, finding that it helps bind oxygen to vital tissues and thus aids in prolonging a patient's chances of surviving.
Averaging four calls a day, Bayflite responds in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Manatee and Sarasota counties. And Bayflite will back up Hillsborough and Polk counties if their services are busy.
The call for Crystal Hedrick's accident came at 2:17 p.m., the day's first. Her hospital stay lasted four days, but she returned Thursday when Bayfront presented her with a plaque honoring her as their 10,000th patient to be transported by Bayflite.
"Ten thousand flights is a tremendous milestone," said Keith Dutton, director of Florida's Emergency Medical Service. "But what it means is 10,000 people received high level emergency care."
What it meant to Crystal, however, was an unforgettable and scary experience.
"They told me to close my eyes until we got inside the hospital," she said. "It was a nice flight, though."
Crystal, still in a neck brace from the accident, celebrated her 12th birthday with friends last Saturday. They played games, opened presents and consumed a rainbow ice-cream cake with neon candles. However, it was a bit different than the pool party she originally planned.
"Nobody's been in since the accident," Ms. Bowers said. "It doesn't feel fair to her."