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Medical Helicopters Cleared for Landing in Maine

PORTLAND, Maine — Starting Monday, medical helicopters were cleared to land atop Maine Medical Center in Portland, delivering people straight from emergency scenes to the doors of the state s largest hospital.

Maine Med has built a $1.5 million aluminum helipad on a garage, so LifeFlight of Maine will no longer have to bring patients to the Portland International Jetport for an ambulance ride to the hospital.

Hospital officials say the change will save precious minutes.

LifeFlight helicopters travel at an average speed of 160 mph. A trip that takes 45 minutes by car is about 10 minutes by air.

Until now, LifeFlight patients bound for Maine Med have lost at least 10 minutes on the ground because ambulance drivers are constrained by traffic, road construction and unpredictable train crossings.

The transfer from helicopter to ambulance also can be rough on a patient, who could be suffering a heart attack or have broken bones sustained in a car crash.

With all these movements, you could lose breathing tubes, and IVs could get pulled out, said Dr. Mike Baumann, medical director of Maine Med s emergency department and one of the medical directors for LifeFlight.

Now that it has a helipad, Maine Med expects an increase in the proportion of patients who arrive by helicopter compared with ambulances, said LifeFlight spokeswoman Melissa Arndt. She said Maine Med might also get more patients from hospitals in southern York County that previously sent critically ill patients by air to Boston or New Hampshire.

Having that helipad at Maine Med is reducing transport time by 10 to 15 minutes after the helicopter reaches Portland, Arndt said.

Maine Med is the last of the state s three trauma centers to get a helipad. LifeFlight already flies to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. The two hospitals founded the air ambulance service in 1998 to ensure that patients in remote locations would not be stranded when they needed emergency care.

Although Maine Med is the only hospital in the state named a top-level trauma center by the American College of Surgeons — it meets criteria such as providing a full range of services and equipment — it has been struggling to build a helipad for the better part of a decade.

Maine Med spokesman Wayne Clark said the hospital has had to contend with a years-long city permitting process.

We had a rather difficult site, given where we were, Clark said of Portland s densely populated West End neighborhood.

The hospital s neighbors, who already hear ambulance sirens and jetport traffic, worried about the added noise of helicopters, especially in the middle of the night. But the hospital showed a commitment to using flight paths that would cause the least disruption to residents, and helicopters that use technology that minimizes noise, said Patrick Murphy, a member of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association.

It s not suggested that there won t be some noise level, Murphy said. On the other side, we do recognize that this is a service that is needed and can save lives.

The helipad, built atop the hospital garage at Congress and Gilman streets, is part of a $170 million expansion project.

Work crews are expected to complete a second garage and lobby area by the summer, a building for women and infants by the fall, and a new emergency department by the end of 2008. A central utility plant is nearly completed.

To prepare the staff for receiving patients brought by LifeFlight, the hospital held practice runs this week with a helicopter making four different approaches.

Only a small percentage of Dr. Robert Winchell s trauma and burn patients now come to Maine Med by LifeFlight.

Just 1.5 percent of the nearly 1,100 trauma patients who went to Maine Med in 2006 were transported by air from the scene. Six percent were airlifted from other hospitals, according to hospital records. The rest arrived by ambulance or car.

Winchell said he hopes that medical personnel who used to send patients to Boston instead of Maine Med because of the extra stop at the jetport will change their minds.

A fair number of patients, we could take care of and keep them closer to home, Winchell said.

Staff Writer Josie Huang can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

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