No patient was aboard, no emergency was at hand for Life Flight 6 on what was only the second day of operation of St. Luke’s new $6.75 million emergency medical helicopter.
The exercise was intended to familiarize the crew – staffed by Geisinger Life Flight – and St. Luke’s medical personnel with the new twin-engine EC145 helicopter made by Airbus Helicopters.
“It still has that new helicopter smell,” Gerald Splitt, flight nurse and director of the Life Flight program, quipped after the 18-minute flight from Jack Arner Airport near Lehighton, where the helicopter is based.
St. Luke’s bought its medical helicopter for the first time and collaborated with Geisinger Health System’s program to staff and operate it after ending its longtime agreement with Penn Medicine’s PennSTAR program, which had provided the health network’s air ambulance transportation for 20 years.
The helicopter is equipped with advanced avionics capabilities that allow flight crews to conduct visual and instrument flights.
“It’s beautiful, it’s large and it’s state of the art,” said pilot Robert Allen, who noted the helicopter has touch screen GPS that is user-friendly and has night-vision capability.
The helicopter carries specialized medical equipment worth $125,000 to $150,000.
Members of St. Luke’s perfusion department were eager to see the new helicopter and plan how their heart and lung machine, called an ECMO machine (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), would fit into the tight space.
The exercise would be better to do now, before a real emergency occurs, said Michael Homishak, manager of the perfusion department at St. Luke’s.
“Everybody has a role,” Homishak said. “You get in here now instead of figuring it out in the middle of the night and trying to figure out who’s got what role while you’re out on the helipad. We’ve done this in the dark.”
The helicopter will be carrying blood and ultrasound equipment in a few months, said Mark R. Lohman, network director of St. Luke’s emergency and transport service.
St. Luke’s has been collaborating with Geisinger on a number of initiatives in recent years, including planned construction of a new hospital off Route 61 in Orwigsburg and a health insurance program.
Geisinger’s Flight program has transported more than 60,000 patients since it began 37 years ago. About 65 percent of Life Flight flights are patients being transported from one hospital to another, and 35 percent are from medical and trauma incidents throughout the region.
On its inaugural flight Sunday, St. Luke’s helicopter transported a man who suffered a heart attack from Tamaqua to the hospital in Fountain Hill.
Geisinger’s Life Flight program includes 100 team members and operates nine helicopters out of six bases: Lehighton, Danville, Minersville, State College, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Williamsport.