Flights of a critical nature for west Alabama


MERIDIAN, Miss. (AP) — Sitting inside their trailer that is the base of operations for the University of Mississippi Medical Center's Air Care medical flight in Meridian, Ken Smith, Sam Marshall and Randall Boykin are trying to catch their respective breaths.

The trio had already gone on two flights that morning transporting critical care patients from eastern Mississippi hospitals to the Jackson facility.

Landing back at Key Field in Meridian at around 2 p.m. they were finishing up lunch.

Marshall, the base manager and critical care paramedic, was fighting off the urge to nap while Boykin, the pilot of the canary yellow EC-135 helicopter sitting outside, was sprawled out on a sofa. Smith, who rounds out the team as the critical care nurse, was at the computer doing a report associated with the last flight.

They bantered with each other as the radio crackled.

There was a patient at Stone County Memorial Hospital in Wiggins who needed transport to Jackson for treatment. The ground crewman cleared the helicopter and the three men piled in. It took only five minutes between the time the call came in until the skids on the bird lifted off the tarmac.

"It was determined some time ago there was a serious need for a medical transport helicopter for the eastern Mississippi and western Alabama areas," said Marshall. "This satellite field enables us to be much closer to the emergencies we routinely answer."

The typical crew consists of a critical care nurse, a paramedic and the pilot.

There are training and certificates that must be obtained and then maintained for the medical personnel to even be considered for this specific line of work. Marshall and Smith have many years of experience in their respective critical care fields as do the other men and women who provide the care to patients. That is understandable considering they won't fly someone if they have a cold.

"If we go get someone, they are in bad shape," Smith said.

Air Care in Meridian averages 45 flights per month.

As Boykin points the helicopter toward Wiggins, he clears his radio chatter with the tower at Key Field and sets the auto pilot for Wiggins. At 2,000 feet and cruising at 130 mph, it will only take about 40 minutes to reach the hospital.

Marshall and Smith are busy in the back making sure their supplies are in order for the upcoming patient.

"It's not easy finding nurses and paramedics who have the kind of past experience or certifications to do this job," said Marshall. "You really have to be committed to do this but the rewards are well worth it."

Boykin glides the copter over power lines and between pine trees. Marshall and Smith are watching his back to make sure he clears every obstacle. Boykin sets the skids down without the hint of a bump.

Marshall and Smith quickly gather the equipment they've decided they will need and put it on the stretcher. Outside they are met by Jason Rogers, a nurse practitioner in Stone County who also is a flight nurse for Air Care.

Air Care in Meridian employs five critical care nurses, five paramedics, two mechanics and four pilots. The pilots fly eight-hour shifts while the medical flight crew work 12-hour rotations. Marshall and Smith work through UMMC's health center department.

Boykin, on the other hand, and the helicopter he flies, are not with the UMMC or state system. The EC-135 is leased to UMMC through PHI, a contractor who leases and provides pilots and ground crews to all kinds of corporations around the nation.

The three men are a closely knit team who work together for the welfare of the patient.

"That is our goal," said Marshall. "Get the patient to the best care available as quickly as possible."

Most of the work the helicopter does is transporting patients from one medical facility to another. Occasionally, they are called to the scene of traffic accidents. It is the type of work that really gets the adrenaline pumping, Smith said.

On this occasion, Smith, Marshall and Rogers bring the patient out of the hospital and maneuver the stretcher through the rear doors opened at the back of the helicopter. Boykin assists in getting some of the equipment used to sustain the condition of the patient during the flight to Jackson.

The helicopter compartment where the patient and Smith and Marshall will squeeze into looks like a miniature intensive care hospital room. Every nook and cranny of the helicopter is used.

Once the patient is loaded, Smith and Marshall cram themselves inside.

Boykin climbs to 3,000 feet. The 45-minute flight is light speed compared to the more than three hours it would take an ambulance to make the trip by land.

He switches to the rear intercom so he can listen in on Smith and Marshall as they tend to the patient. The banter of before has been replaced by medical jargon. The two men talk of vital signs, treatment regimens and other medical procedures they must do.

It only takes minutes to offload the patient from the rooftop heliport at UMMC. A half hour allows Boykin to top off the fuel tanks so by the time Smith and Marshall return with an empty stretcher, the crew is ready to head back to Meridian.

Just as they are on their final approach, dispatch calls that there is a patient at Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center who needs a ride to Jackson.

"Well, when it rains it pours," Marshall said with a broad grin. "At this rate we might break the record."

The record Marshall was referring to was a six-flight rotation done by another medical crew. This would be Smith and Marshall's fourth call. Ultimately, they would have one more that night before they were relieved. Boykin, having already completed his shift, handed over the controls to a waiting pilot.

The two medical personnel rush into the trailer to replenish their supplies. Then they race back to the waiting helicopter — and patient.


Information from: The Meridian Star,

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.