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Jerry Davich: UCAN medical chopper saves time and NWI lives

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Updated: September 19, 2013 9:22AM



The call came in at 9:23 p.m.

A two-day-old baby was born in critically ill condition in a Chicago area suburban hospital. The newborn needed specialized neurological medical care at Comer Children’s Hospital, a level one pediatric trauma center on the city’s south side.

“We’ll need the helicopter and a nurse practitioner for this flight,” said Kelley Holdren, chief flight nurse for the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, or UCAN.

UCAN is the vaunted air medical service for the University of Chicago Medicine, which uses a 1989 Dauphin-365 twin-engine helicopter to treat and transport the sickest and most complex trauma patients in the Chicago metro area, including Northwest Indiana. At least one patient a day comes from our region, which has no level one trauma centers for serious and complex cases.

The UCAN chopper is one of the fastest, largest and safest aeromedical helicopters in the world, with a cruising speed of 180 miles per hour while carrying a physician, nurse and pilot to hospitals, heliports and emergency landing zones in multiple states. Portage alone has 15 designated landing zones, a frontrunner for such emergency services.

UCAN is celebrating its 30-year anniversary this year and I shadowed its crew earlier this week for a 10-hour shift, including the late-night flight to transport the critically ill newborn back to Comer Children’s Hospital, part of the University of Chicago facility.

“It’s not a dirty baby,” Holdren explains, meaning the baby has not been out of the hospital and exposed to the outside world, a good thing.

The 38-year-old Dyer mother of two has been with UCAN for nine years, and she also serves as its administrative director. On this day, she’s working a 24-hour shift, covering for another nurse who called off sick. She’s an admitted “type A” personality, like most UCAN staff members, who have pretty much seen it all regarding gruesome crash sites, seriously injured patients, and dead-on-arrival victims.

Holdren and other UCAN staff has seen “the sickest of the sick” on its thousands of flights, including suicide attempt survivors, crash victims, burn victims, abused children, you name it. Possibly you’ve seen the red and white UCAN chopper land directly at a crash scene, football field or empty parking to provide tertiary care and emergency transport.

The helicopter is equipped, via a 2005 refurbish, with all new systems, including GPS, satellite tracking, and a terrain avoidance warning system. It’s also configured to fly aortic balloon pumps, nitric oxide, left ventricular assist devices, among other high-tech medical equipment.

On this night, Holdren requests a nurse practitioner for the flight while Bob Hayes, a UCAN communications dispatcher, informs the helicopter pilot, Ron Doerler.

Within a few minutes, the team is assembled on the hospital’s rooftop heliport for liftoff. I sit in the back, next to the nurse practitioner, after a gurney is replaced with an incubator “isolette” to transport the sick newborn.

After Holdren and Doerler perform their requisite safety check — safety is the number one priority on each flight — the chopper lifts off for the suburban hospital. The flight time is about 10 minutes, compared to average flight times to Northwest Indiana landing zones in Gary (seven minutes), Crown Point (12 minutes), and Michigan City (19 minutes).

On this clear and crisp night, it’s a smooth ride at 800 feet off the ground and a soft landing atop the other hospital, where police officers wait with hospital staff on the heliport.

“This bird flies like a ’74 Cadillac,” the helicopter pilot, Doerler, tells me.

Holdren and Doerler unload the isolette on top of a gurney and hurry into the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. There, the nurse practitioner confers with a NICU nurse while Holdren talks with the newborn’s parents and begins the transport process.

Minutes later, the isolette with baby on board is wheeled back to the roof and loaded into the chopper by Holdren, Doerler and hospital staff.

“Ok, one... two... three... lift,” Holdren tells everyone.

Hooked up to several monitors on the isolette, and tubes in its tiny body, the newborn wiggles around as the chopper lifts off. A tiny pair of earmuffs was placed on the newborn to shield it from the deafening noise of the helicopter’s engine and rotor.

En route, Holdren reads the newborn’s lab report and vitals with a flashlight on her helmet as the chopper flies back to Comer Children’s Hospital. Arrival time: 11:15 p.m.

While Holdren and the nurse practitioner wheel the isolette from the heliport into the hospital’s NICU, Doerler hops back into the chopper to refuel at Midway Airport. I hopped in next to him in the co-pilot’s seat and we arrive in just a few minutes.

During normal working hours, UCAN pilots typically refuel at the Gary Jet Center, but after 10 p.m. they must do it at Midway. The chopper uses a lot of gas for each flight and the pilots must make sure it’s full for the next flight, which can take them to another state.

“This bird likes to drink a lot of gas,” Doerler said after liftoff.

Along the way, Doerler tells me that each flight to transport a patient is an adrenaline rush for him, but especially the flights when the medical staff continually ask him, “How much longer until we’re back?” He then knows that his patient on board is in a truly life or death situation, a race to beat the clock or defy fate.

It’s cases such as child abuse victims and pediatric patients who really get to the UCAN staff, a close-knit team that works together for long hours and in tight quarters while waiting for those “all hands on deck!” dispatch calls.

“Anyone’s adrenaline would go up in those situations,” Doerler tells me as we land on the rooftop heliport to check the condition of the newborn.

In my Monday column, I’ll tell you more about the fascinating UCAN program, its colorful crew, other Northwest Indiana aspects, feedback from UCAN patients, and the outcome of the newborn. Visit www.post-trib.com or my Facebook page to view more photos and video of UCAN in action.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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