Mission Health’s Mountain Area Medical Airlift (MAMA) got a new helicopter earlier this month thanks to parent company HCA Healthcare.
Pictured above is MAMA’s new helicopter landing and taking off from Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.
MAMA provides critical medical air transport throughout 18 counties in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northeast Georgia, and northern South Carolina.
MAMA’s new helicopter is an upgrade from an Airbus EC135 to an Airbus EC145. The EC145 has more interior space giving nurses and paramedics better access to patients. It also carries more fuel increasing MAMA’s range, more powerful engines for a higher payload capacity, and more sophisticated instruments.
MAMA provides medical air transport services 24/7, 365 days a year. This is the third helicopter in MAMA’s fleet, so a backup is always available when one needs maintenance.
MAMA Air Medical Supervisor John Grindstaff said all aspects of mission safety are improved in the new helicopter.
“The main reason is safety,” said Grindstaff. “We have more sophisticated instruments so we can fly in weather we couldn’t fly in before. It has more power and can carry more fuel, and we have 100% patient access that we didn’t have before because we didn’t have the space. Now we can reach more people and give better patient care. It’s been on our wish list for a while and I sleep better now that we have it.”
Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal said providing medical services at a rural hospital can be challenging, one of the biggest being transporting a critical patient.
“When a patient needs advanced services for events like accidents requiring a trauma center or a heart attack requiring emergency treatment, timely treatment is critical,” said Neal. “In healthcare, there are several sayings we have such as the ‘golden hour’ with trauma or ‘time is muscle’ for heart attacks. These statements are more than an ad line, they are based upon scientific studies demonstrating the benefit of timely care. The addition of the helicopter to MAMA adds another resource that can support our goal to provide the best care possible.”
MAMA’s standard crew includes a pilot, nurse, and paramedic. MAMA Pilot Bryan Neal said having more power in the new helicopter comes in handy in the mountains.
“It’s bigger and heavier than the old one, but the first thing I noticed is the power,” said Bryan. “It’s much easier to climb and get over terrain, and all pilots have been in a situation where they’re picking up a heavy patient and don’t know if they’re going to complete the mission without burning off some fuel to lighten the load. I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
Bryan added that new helicopter also has an autopilot system that its predecessor does not. Autopilot allows MAMA to carry out missions in bad weather, such as dense fog or hurricane conditions that Bryan said can quickly form in the mountains.
When a patient is on board, MAMA Nurse Carrie Underwood doesn’t think about bad weather, payload capacity, or anything else beyond caring for her patient. She said the increased space is a huge plus in terms of patient access, but it took a little time to get used to the exposed tail rotor.
“It will be easier to get to the patients in all aspects of their care,” said Underwood. “There’s so much more space in this aircraft. But use caution around that exposed rotor, if you’re over 6’1’, steer clear.”
MAMA Flight Paramedic Nicholas Cook acts as the navigator on the way to the call, but takes position in the back once a patient is on board.
“Access to the patient from where I sit in the rear-facing seat was limited in the old one,” said Cook. “Now if I need to do an intervention or insert a breathing tube, I have room to do that. And with more fuel we can go farther out into the region and provide access to people we couldn’t normally serve.”
MAMA has bases at Mission Hospital in Asheville and Angel Medical Center in Franklin. Grindstaff said it takes about an hour and twenty minutes to drive the 68 miles between the two without traffic, but it’s a 25-minute flight. He said when patients are suffering from stroke, STEMI, or trauma; every second counts.
And it’s those critical time-sensitive calls that Tom said having access to medical air transport can save a patient’s life.
“Anyone who has visited Highlands appreciates the remote location,” said Tom. “While the calls for a helicopter transport may not happen every day, it is critical the response is rapid. Having a reliable transport team could not be more important when one of our patients needs care quickly.”
He added that HCA has invested $5 million to support improvements to HCH’s infrastructure, add new technology, and support improved patient care. He said these investments and the purchase of a new helicopter not only reflect a commitment to the hospital and the community, but also reflect the strength of HCA.
The EC-145 will be the new MAMA 1 based in Asheville. The current MAMA 1 aircraft, EC-135 will become a backup in the event either of the other two need maintenance. The current MAMA 2, an EC-135 will remain in Franklin. The backup aircraft is housed at the Asheville airport until needed.