EagleMed, an air medical transport company headquartered in Wichita, sees patients on the worst day of their lives.
A pilot and medical crew are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 6601 W. Pueblo Drive at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
They stand ready to transport patients with medical emergencies primarily in rural areas to hospitals for treatment.
How quickly they can respond can determine life or death, or permanent disability versus full recovery.
“Time is tissue,” said Larry Bugg, president of EagleMed. For critical patients, the “longer it takes to get to care, the worse it is.”
EagleMed operates 15 helicopters, 15 King Airs and five ground ambulances in 29 locations in 10 states.
They’re small flying intensive care units.
An EagleMed helicopter can be off the ground in five to seven minutes after getting a call. Taking off in a Beechcraft King Air takes a little longer, but it can fly farther.
Local crews serve Kansas and parts of Missouri and Oklahoma. They work closely with Via Christi, Wesley and other hospitals.
“It’s a rewarding job,” said Craig Richardson, EagleMed regional aviation manager, standing next to an American Eurocopter AStar AS350B2 helicopter on a recent day inside its hangar.
Sometimes, it’s also a sad job, especially when children are involved, said Richardson, who flew medical evacuation flights for the military before coming to EagleMed.
Their patients include accident and burn victims, heart attack and stroke patients, the critically ill, premature babies and others.
EagleMed’s medical crew consists of a paramedic and nurse on every flight.
The helicopters have been modified so a stretcher fits where seats would be, with the medical crew sitting at the back of the aircraft near the patient’s head.
From there, they can put in chest tubes, perform CPR, do medical procedures and otherwise treat a patient in flight until they arrive at a hospital.
Crews work with physicians for a patient’s care.
“They carry medication and the skill sets to stabilize patients and get them to the next level of care,” Bugg said. “We do that thousands of times a year.”
EagleMed’s communications center coordinates and tracks the flights.
The center receives and makes 500 to 600 calls a day.
On an average day, EagleMed will fly 20 to 25 flights or transport about 8,000 patients a year.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” said Allison Williams, a communications specialist in Wichita. “You never have a dull moment.”
It can get challenging in busy times when staff must juggle calls and several requests at a time.
“You learn to prioritize,” Williams said.
She and other specialists take calls from fire, police, paramedics or other first responders and relay patient information, location and other information to the pilot and medical crew.
They will talk to the crew 20 or 30 times per flight.
“They are the brains of the whole operation,” said Andy Faletto, EagleMed’s director of operations.
EagleMed was founded in 1977 by Jim and Iva Ballard, who sold the company in 2009 to Air Medical Group Holdings. Air Medical Group is the largest privately held provider of air medical services in the world, according to the company.
In recent years, EagleMed has grown quickly, nearly doubling in size in four years, Bugg said. Its operations stretch east to South Carolina, south to San Marcos, Texas, north to Anchorage, Alaska, and west to Wyoming.
But Wichita is the “mothership,” Bugg said. It’s the primary base of operation and the central hub for maintenance on the aircraft.
Its training and logistics centers are also in Wichita.
EagleMed makes a significant investment in training and equipment.
Nurses and paramedics must have a minimum of three years of critical care experience. Pilots must be air transport pilot rated. Many are former military pilots.
Newly hired nurses, paramedics, pilots, mechanics and communications specialists come to Wichita for initial training and also participate in further training through the year, every year.
“My litmus test when I hire a pilot is whether or not I would let them fly my family,” Richardson said. The same goes for the medical crews.
EagleMed employs about 400 people, including 83 in Wichita.
The company has had three fatal helicopter crashes in the past three years. Bugg said he can’t comment on those accidents, because the investigations are ongoing.
But officials say safety is always the top priority. EagleMed is accredited for critical care transport services by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems, a voluntary accreditation body representing the standard in the air medical transport industry.
Meeting the requirements and the documentation to be accredited is high. It includes a comprehensive on-site audit and voluminous document submissions, which are reviewed by its board, Bugg said.
Last year, EagleMed earmarked $7.5million to refurbish the fleet and nearly $1million to update the communications center.
Each helicopter and airplane is equipped with night vision goggles and devices for the entire crew.
It invested about $1million for the equipment and in training crew members.
Each pilot received eight hours of ground school and five hours of flight training to use the goggles. Each medical crew member received eight hours of ground school and one hour of flight training.
With the goggles, the crew can see at night where otherwise things would be black. They can see highways, roads, utility wires and the scene of the accident.
That especially helps in remote areas, such as in western Kansas where it’s quite dark at night.
“Even when there’s no moon, you can still see,” said Richardson, who heads EagleMed’s night vision program. “When we’re landing on the scene of an accident, you can see everything.”
From the air in Wichita, for example, they can see the lights of an ambulance in Wellington, thunderstorms in Oklahoma City or the light from someone’s smartphone two miles away.
EagleMed is paid from insurance providers and co-pays from patients. Those without insurance pay for the services themselves.
The company writes off a significant amount of charges every year, Bugg said.
“We don’t do wallet biopsies,” Bugg said. “Our service is provided to the community. We assume all the risk.”
Emergency responders call, “and we respond,” Bugg said. “We never know who it is we’re going to transport. We respond to people in need.”
EagleMed also offers a membership service through AirMedCare Network in which members pay $65 per household per year. They will be transported if needed from more than 210 locations in 30 states.
Critical care transport is a mission, Bugg said.
“We’re blessed to provide this invaluable service to the community,” he said. “Thousands and thousands of mothers and fathers and grandparents and sons and daughters are here today because of our services.”
“Our goal is to live our values and try to manifest our vision of serving underserved locations in the United States,” Bugg said.