LEESBURG – If you're clinging to life after an accident, stroke or heart attack, you might look up and see an angel of mercy coming in for a landing.
That "angel" will probably be Orlando Health's Air Care team based at Leesburg International Airport.
The sleek red state-of-the-art choppers are staffed with a pilot, nurse and paramedic that can whisk a patient to Orlando Regional Medical Center, the only Level One trauma center in Central Florida, in 12 minutes or less.
It is one of three helicopter teams the health care system has positioned in the area. One team is stationed at south Seminole County and the other is at the Kissimmee Airport. Teams include communication specialists and mechanics.
The Lake County team had been stationed at South Lake Hospital, but the rapid growth of the Villages, north Lake and the Clermont area were all factors that led the hospital to move to Leesburg, said Karen Thurmond, chief flight nurse.
Air ambulances are crucial tools in the so-called "golden hour," when a patient's chances for survival increase dramatically if he or she receives immediate care.
To be designated a level one trauma center, a hospital must staff the appropriate personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including neurosurgeons and other emergency specialists.
First responders determine if a patient should be airlifted to a trauma center.
Every case is different. The flight crew can assist in extricating a patient from wreckage, or wait. "We can then work with a patient in the back of an ambulance or in the helicopter," said Rick Clow, chief flight paramedic.
The teams spend countless hours emphasizing safety with ground rescue teams. Crews have always been trained to watch out for power lines and tree limbs, especially at night. Pilots have now been issued military grade night vision goggles, Clow said.
The helicopters have also been equipped with everything a patient might need, including ventilators, Thurmond said.
The EC 135 helicopters are manufactured by American Europcopter, a company which was bought out by Airbus.
"They have airplane and helicopter avoidance systems and cruise at 120 knots," Thurmond said. "We can fly all over the state without refueling," she said.
The idea is to get the patient to the closest, best equipped hospital as soon as possible.
About half of Air Care's mission is transporting patients from one hospital to another.
The company has flown thousands of hours since it began the service in 1984.
The pilots themselves come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Randy Stokes, now retired, had flown into Hamburger Hill in Vietnam.
"Some are civilian trained, pilots who have worked on oil rigs," Thurmond said. "An extensive number are Gulf War vets."
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