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Thirty Years of Life-Saving Flight

10:36 AM, Sep 12, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (WUSA9)-- On this anniversary of the September 11th attacks...one flight crew vividly remembers where they were on that day in 2001. Nearly all air traffic was grounded over the nation's capital. But the medical team onboard the MedSTAR Transport chopper went back up, and rushed to help at the Pentagon.

Flight nurse Toby Kyle says the carnage they encountered on 9/11 is impossible to forgot. But the team put aside personal shock and horror to do what they do every day: act as airborne intensive care and trauma unit.  It is mission that began thirty years ago, in the summer of 1983.  

Dr. Christopher Wuerker is the medical director of MedSTAR Transport. (MedSTAR is an acronym for Medical Shock Trauma Acute Rescuscitation.)  Dr. Wuerker says, "It started with a single helicopter here at Washington Hospital Center and that helicopter had a mission to go out and pick up trauma victims from the scene."

Back in the 1990's, when gang violence and feuds over crack cocaine earned DC the title of 'murder capital', the transport chopper brought an endless stream of gunshot victims to the hospital, many of whom wouldn't make it. But these days, this flying ambulance is used much more often to ferry critical ill patients from suburban and community hospitals who are in need of time-sensitive, specialized care.  They come from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Jim Weller has been a MedSTAR flight paramedic for 2 years.  He explains, "We are picking up the sickest of the sick patients from the outlying hospitals and treating them like an ICU in the aircraft and bringing them back to a tertiary-care facility."

The space inside the chopper is incredibly tight; everything from IV's to airway supplies, ventilators and a defibrillator are packed inside.  The team has many stories to tell of patients who've 'coded' mid-flight and survived... thanks to non-stop efforts at resuscitation.

Toby Kyle says, "We've been able to keep them going for prolonged periods of time, (people) who have beaten the odds and survived when their hearts have been stopped for up to 45 minutes."

MedSTAR Transport now operates three airbases and has a staff of 80, including pilots, flight nurses, paramedics, communications specialists and mechanics.

Even though nearly 40,000 patients have been safely flown since the first transport on July 3, 1983, there is still a flurry of activity and adrenaline every time a helicopter touches down on the hospital's rooftop landing pad.

Pilot Steve Shubert says, "We land here and before you know it, they are out and giving me the thumbs up and I'm coming around here to fuel."