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Virginia Medevac Service Seeks Help

SUFFOLK - Nightingale, the air ambulance that has flown thousands of patients in Hampton Roads, is buying a new helicopter and will ask local governments to help pay for it.

The not-for-profit Sentara service has already asked Currituck County for $1 million, and it will approach other localities soon, said Meril Amdursky, executive director of the Sentara Health Foundation. Nightingale plans to exchange its 23-year-old aircraft for a new helicopter in 2011 at a cost of $7 million. The new helicopter , an EC145, will allow flights in more inclement weather and accommodate larger patients, Amdursky said.

The foundation will seek donations in part based on how much a city uses the service and its capacity to donate, Amdursky said. This is the first time Sentara has sought money from local governments for the service, she said. One of Nightingale's most common destinations is Western Tidewater, where patients may be an hour away by ground ambulance from Sentara Norfolk General Hospital's trauma center. Suffolk accounts for about 100 of the 650 to 800 flights that Nightingale makes each year, Amdursky said.

Suffolk Fire Chief Mark Outlaw was unavailable to comment Tuesday about Nightingale, city spokeswoman Debbie George said. She responded to a request to speak to another fire department official with the following statement: "Nightingale provides a valuable service to all of Hampton Roads." Andy Aigner, Isle of Wight County fire and EMS coordinator, said bad weather occasionally restricts Nightingale from calls in his area and he hoped a new helicopter would reduce those instances. Nightingale can turn an hour-and-15-minute ambulance ride into a 12-minute flight, Aigner said.

Sentara has asked for $1 million donations from at least four entities. Amdursky would not identify the others besides Currituck County. The city of Suffolk has not been approached yet, but the Obici Healthcare Foundation has. Sentara has asked the Suffolk-based foundation to contribute $500,000.

Trauma flights cost an average of $8,000, putting the annual cost of emergency flights to Western Tidewater at $1,832,000, according to numbers from Sentara. About 40 percent of those cases - or about $732,800 - are not reimbursed by insurance.

Nightingale, which started service in 1982, is planning to upgrade its aircraft at a time of increased air ambulance service in the region. LifeEvac, a community-based service run by a private company, added a helicopter to the Middle Peninsula Regional Airport in 2006. And the city of Virginia Beach is about a week away from beginning air ambulance service with its new, $2.9 million Bell 407 helicopter.

Pilot writer Jeff Hampton contributed to this article.

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