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County weighs medevac offers

Officials gather facts about a medical helicopter program similar to one two bay area hospitals are proposing in Citrus.

Rick Weigand was skeptical at first when Tampa General Hospital stationed a medical evacuation helicopter, or medevac, in Highlands County.

"I had to be convinced the hardest because we've got a local hospital that does a great job," said Weigand, director of Highlands County's Emergency Medical Services.

But he said Aeromed 2 proved its worth within a few weeks of its 1994 arrival in Sebring, when it rushed two nearly drowned children to the pediatric trauma center at Tampa General Hospital.

Without Aeromed 2, the kids would have waited another half hour for an outside helicopter to pick them up, or they would have been taken to a local hospital that does not have a team of specialized trauma doctors.

"The only reason these kids are alive today with no deficit is Aeromed," Weigand said.

Citrus officials visited with Weigand and other Highlands officials last week on a fact-finding trip, as they gathered information on Tampa General's proposal to set up a similar medevac program at the Inverness Regional Airport.

Citrus County is in the enviable position of having both Tampa General and Bayfront Medical Center offering to station a medevac here at no cost to the county, Florida Regional EMS operations coordinator Randy Van Alstine said.

Having a medevac here, instead of waiting for one to come up from Pasco County or down from Gainesville, means patients who have suffered severe burns, serious gunshot wounds or brain or spinal-cord injuries would get to a trauma center sooner. And that improves their chances of survival and recovery.

The County Commission will select one of the two medevacs in the coming weeks. Commissioner Brad Thorpe met with Tampa General last week, and will meet with Bayflite officials this week, to start weighing the two proposals.

"It would be an advantage to our citizens," Thorpe said. "There's no downside, I think."

Tampa General's proposal is modeled after its medevac program in Sebring, where Aeromed 2 is stationed around the clock to cover a remote, five-county area spanning 5,000 square miles. A three-member flight crew and a helicopter mechanic live in a mobile home on the grounds of the Sebring Regional Airport, a mile-long airstrip that got its start as a pilot training base during World War II.

Aeromed 2 averages about 60 calls a month and stays in Sebring all the time, even if Aeromed 1 in Tampa is out for repairs.

"The purpose we put it down there was to serve the people down there," said John Scott, Aeromed program manager. "It would defeat the purpose to take it away."

Scott said Tampa General's medevac mission is twofold: to provide better helicopter coverage of underserved areas and to bring more patients into Tampa General.

In emergencies, medevacs must bring patients to the closest trauma center. For Citrus and Hernando counties, the proposed primary coverage area for Aeromed 3, the closest one is Tampa General.

Aeromed 3 would also transport patients from local hospitals to Tampa General, but not a competing hospital, if they needed more advanced operations or rehabilitation programs. Local patients who wanted to go to one of Tampa General's competitors, such as Bayfront, would have to make arrangements through that hospital, Scott said.

Tampa General pays for the Aeromed program by billing the patients who use it.

The hospital's board of directors has already signed off on a plan to put Aeromed 3 at the Inverness airport, if Citrus officials will accept, said Deana Nelson, Tampa General's vice president of patient services.

"We've got our ducks lined up as closely as we possibly can without knowing whether or not we have the go-ahead from you all," Nelson told Thorpe last week.

Tampa General has Central Florida's only Level I trauma center, which offers the most extensive level of emergency care, including a burn center and a team of trauma surgeons who are at the hospital around the clock.

Tampa General is also the only hospital, Scott said, that has already established a successful rural medevac program.

"We're extremely committed to this," said Aeromedical specialist David Duke, who oversees the Sebring station. "This is not some experimental thing that we put up here to see how it works. We came here and got involved in the community."

Duke said Aeromed 3 would do the same in Citrus County, by showing up at health fairs, offering seminars to doctors and allowing local paramedics to ride along with the medevac crew on calls.

Local EMS coordinator Van Alstine said ground paramedics could learn valuable skills by spending a day on a medevac.

"They would get to see the worst of the worst," he said. "That trains them to be at their best when things are at their worst."

Community perks aside, the bottom line in Sebring is that patient care improved dramatically because trauma victims could get to the hospital sooner, said Dr. Catherine Carrubba, medical director of the Aeromed program.

"Timely intervention is the most basic thing," Carrubba said. "Before we went out there, there were a lot of preventable deaths."

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