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Memphis Fire Dept. Supersizes Ambulance

Trying to counter ever-expanding waistlines, the Memphis Fire Department has added an ambulance that can transport super-sized patients.

Capable of comfortably carrying people weighing up to 1,600 pounds, the "bariatric ambulance," which is equipped with a winch and extra-large stretcher, is waiting at centrally located Fire Station 13 on East Parkway to fetch its first patient.

"We're seeing more and more obese patients," said Deputy Fire Chief Gary Ludwig, who oversees emergency management services for the department. "That's part of the issue."

About once a week, the department will need to transport patients in the 600- to 800-pound range, Ludwig estimated. The department has seen some sick or injured people tipping the scales at more than 1,000 pounds, he said.

Without stretchers large enough, very obese patients have had to be lifted in special equipment such as an "EMS Mega Mover," which looks like a rectangular tarp with six handles on each long side.

Stretchers have to be removed from regular ambulances, and the patients ride on the floor, Ludwig said. Extra fire companies are called in for their muscle power.

The super-sized ambulance, as well as the four-person fire engine crew that accompanies it, will be considered on calls where medically stable patients weighing 500 pounds or more could use the specially equipped ride to a hospital.

"It's going to save our firefighters' backs," Ludwig said. "It's going to provide some dignity (to patients), so we're not laying them on the floor of the ambulance."

In January 2009, Memphis firefighters had to cut through the wall of a Southwest Memphis house and use ply board as a makeshift stretcher to carry an injured Cedric Gatlin, who weighed 700 pounds. He hadn't left a room in his mother's house on Elder for at least two years.

On Tuesday, his mother, Barbara Collins, said her son never returned from that trip to the hospital. Gatlin, 50, had suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes, but died of an infection at the hospital, she said .

The Bartlett Fire Department equipped an ambulance last year . Rural/Metro Ambulance, an Arizona-based company contracted to provide service elsewhere in suburban Shelby County, has bariatric stretchers available, said Nikki Gast, market general manager.

The Memphis department already was using the largest ambulances available, Ludwig said. Fire department mechanics readied one, including installation of a winch used to move a stretcher up and down ramps, for the heaviest patients. A stretcher company retrofitted the inside. The total budget for the project was under $5,000, Ludwig said.

A regional health improvement collaborative called Healthy Memphis Common Table has had the goal of reducing obesity since 2003.

About 34 percent of adults in Shelby County are obese, according to 2010 statistics, which are soon to be updated, said Renee S. Frazier, CEO of Healthy Memphis Common Table. The national average is 25 percent, she said.

Obesity is defined as 30 percent over ideal weight for a mild case and 50 to 100 percent over ideal weight for those who are morbidly obese.

The collaborative has targeted area waistlines with a number of initiatives, most recently a Million Calorie Reduction Match, which works with organizations to reduce calories in vending machines and desserts, targets sugary drinks and seeks to increase physical activity in workplaces and communities.

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