MedSTAR Transport: Saving lives in Washington area for 30 years

MedSTAR Transport handles patients of every age, but 50 percent of patients are people with various cardiac illnesses, according to MedSTAR 1 Program Director Joni King. Patients typically have one IV drip, but sometimes the helicopter crew must seamlessly transfer up to eight or nine IV drips for a single patient. (WTOP/Natalie Tomlin)
Paramedic Wade Smith says MedSTAR Transport has transformed from an ambulance service used to ferry victims from accident scenes, to a focus on critical care. Ninety-five percent of today's missions are inter-hospital transfers of patients in the worst possible condition. They need live-saving specialty services, such as burn and heart units. (WTOP/Natalie Tomlin)
Wade Smith, MedSTAR's longest serving paramedic, prepares the EC-135 aircraft for takeoff at one of MedSTAR's three operating locations in Fort Meade, Md. The primary goal is to deliver patients to their destinations in the same condition they were in or better. (WTOP/Natalie Tomlin)
Nurse Karen Weller says the team receives advance notice for special needs, and once the team is in the air, it gets details on the patient being transferred. MedSTAR's helicopters hold just enough room for a pilot, a critical care nurse, a critical care paramedic and the patient. A physician or other specialist can be added to the crew if necessary. (WTOP/Natalie Tomlin)
Paramedic Wade Smith says the nurse-paramedic combination gives the MedSTAR helicopters an edge in dealing with patients in dire conditions. Ambulances usually are manned by paramedics, alone. The nurses all have extensive training in trauma care, and many have surgical experience. (WTOP/Natalie Tomlin)
This month marks 30 years of MedSTAR transport helicopter service. The blue and yellow helicopters transfer the most delicate patients of all -- the sickest of the sick. (WTOP/Natalie Tomlin)
Lead pilot Steve Schubert says the crew is in the air within 5 or 6 minutes after it receives a call. His job is to safely get patients to a care center. While his role is important, he says, "All the magic happens in the back." (WTOP/Natalie Tomlin)

WASHINGTON – It’s a delicate choreography in the air, as MedSTAR 1 lifts off from its helipad at the start of another mission.

The blue and yellow helicopter is a frequent sight in the Washington-area sky. But this helicopter is not just any chopper — it’s a flying intensive care unit, transporting the sickest of the sick.

In a space smaller than an ambulance, specially trained nurses and paramedics care for patients. And they have been doing so for 30 years.

Paramedic Wade Smith, who was on the helicopter’s maiden flight on July 3, 1983, says the medevac team began with mostly adult trauma flights.

Thirty years ago, the helicopters in the small MedSTAR Transport fleet would land near accident scenes, stabilize the victims and then get them to a trauma care center.

Today, a MedSTAR helicopter patient is more likely to be someone who is in critical condition at a small community hospital and in dire need of life-saving, specialized care. These patients, who range from infants to 90 years of age, are those with severe injuries and burns or extremely high-risk pregnancies.

In addition, MedSTAR 1 Program Director Joni King says about half of the patients are heart patients.

“We see people at their worst, unfortunately. But that is what we are here for, that is what we do,” King says.

According to King, the staff is specially trained to handle the most critical cases. All of the nurses have served extensively in trauma, burn or surgical units, and the paramedics are periodically rotated into trauma centers.

Over the last three decades, the MedSTAR 1 team has flown more than 55,000 missions.

The most unforgettable came on Sept. 11, 2001

Paramedic Barbara Brown was in the holding area at the hanger at Tipton Airport in Fort Meade, Md., when she began to hear a lot of chatter on the communications system.

“You could see the smoke from the helipad, and so we just started helping the trauma center get ready for mass casualties,” Brown says.

Within minutes, her team was airborne and on the way to the Pentagon. There, she saved the life of a woman who was dying from smoke inhalation.

It was a time for fast thinking. In that way, Sept. 11, 2001, was like any other day for the helicopter teams.

Once a call for transport comes in, team members scramble to gather any special equipment they may need. Then they are airborne in 5 to 6 minutes.

“You go on automatic pilot,” says Smith, who admits he has seen so much over the years that it has all become a bit of a blur.

While Smith and his other medical team members go on automatic pilot, Steve Schubert pilots the flight. He is the calm hand on the controls of MedSTAR1.

“I just drive the bus

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