Children's Healthcare's new medical helicopter a "flying ICU"

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Lift off is smooth, and within seconds Children's Air, the first medical helicopter of its kind in the world, is airborne.

To Nancy Constable and the rest of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s critical care transport team, this feels like a dream taking flight.

"It's been many years in the making, lots of planning,” Constable says.  "We built her from the ground up."

This helicopter, known as an EC145e, is a flying pediatric intensive care unit built to transport Georgia's most critically ill and injured children, and their parents. 

Most medical helicopter can carry only flight paramedic, a flight nurse, and a patient.

Children’s Air can carry up to five trauma team members, or four clinicians, and the child’s parent.

The Children's transport team has equipped it to have everything they need for inflight emergencies.

"It's got all the bells and whistles that you could ever imagine,” says Jeff Hackney, who custom-fitted much of the medical equipment on board.

Many of the 700 children Children’s Air transports have breathing problems.

So, there is a Heliox high-flow humidifier and nitric oxide gas to help the team keep the child’s airway open.

They also have a ventilator, they can use on the tiniest newborns, and syringe pumps that can deliver powerful medication.

So if you have a really sick patient here,” says Constable, manager of Children’s transport service.  “The paramedic in that seat has all of these monitors where he can reach them."

Earlier this month, Children's Air touched down carrying tiny Major Lee. 

Not yet 4-months old, he was airlifted to Atlanta from a Columbus hospital with a serious heart problem.  On the stretcher, he was so small, it was hard to see him.

But he's back home now, and, his mom says, doing well.

Three years ago, on August 29, 2013, Amanda Huffman's 4-month old son Silas was the baby in the helicopter.  She took him to an urgent care with breathing problems.  Within minutes, they were in the air,  Silas in the back.  Amanda up front with the pilot, a flight nurse reassuring her on a headset.

"She was telling me, 'He's okay. He's okay.  He looks good.  He's breathing,’" Huffman remembers.

Silas would spend the next few months at Children’s, waiting for a heart transplant.

He was too young to remember his flight, but many children understand at least some of what's happening.

"A lot of the 2-year olds, when you bring them in, and you say, 'We brought a really nice helicopter.  This is your helicopter!'” says Constable. “It usually distracts them."

The pilot lands Children’s Air on Grady Memorial Hospital’s helipad, 16 stories above the busy downtown Atlanta streets.

This trip from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston to Grady could take up to a half an hour in Atlanta traffic.

"If we have a sick little one, like here at Grady, I am here in 3 minutes,” says Constable.  “And I am bringing everything that little one needs."

In trauma care, they talk about "the golden hour," how critical those first 60 minutes can be, how little time you have to get critically injured patients to a trauma center, like Children's.

"For pediatrics it's even worse.  We talk about the 'platinum 30 minutes,” says Greg Pereira, Children’s Director of Trauma Transport. 

“Every second counts,” he says.  “So bringing a critical care transport team gets us into that definitive care much quicker than if a patient was sitting in a facility waiting for us to go by ground.”

Children's Air will save time and, Pereira hopes, lives

Lives like Silas Huffman's.  He's now 3, and thriving after receiving a new heart two and a half years ago.

Every time his mom Amanda looks up and sees Children's Air, she says a prayer for the family onboard.

“Because you know.  You've been there,” Huffman says.  “You know the terror they're going through."

Nancy Constable says she sometimes looks for the familiar landmarks as they fly over Atlanta.

“You know when we see that skyline, we're close. “ she says.  “And that the specialists at Children’s are right here, waiting for us.”