A child severely burned in a house fire. A man critically injured in a car accident. A woman in respiratory distress during childbirth.
Any of these situations could be life-threatening, but let them happen on a country road miles or hours from a hospital, and the chances of survival diminish with every minute.
That’s why Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center began its AirCare helicopter ambulance service in May 1986. The 24-hour helicopter provides speedy transportation from wreck scenes and other hospitals for patients who urgently need treatment in the critical care units at Wake Forest Baptist. Each flight is manned by two pilots and a nurse-paramedic team in radio contact with an emergency department physician. Since its inception, AirCare has served thousands of desperately ill patients from a 150-mile radius of Winston-Salem, including parts of South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. From December 1989 through January 2009, AirCare flew to the rescue of 11,746 patients, picking them up either from other hospitals or right in the middle of fields, highways, rural roads, ball fields, golf courses, and occasionally even in homeowners’ yards.
One of those patients was Robert Jolicoeur of Archdale, NC, who credits AirCare with saving his life after he suffered burns on more than 20 percent of his body in September 2007. He posted a thank-you note on the AirCare MySpace page that read, in part: “Had it not been for their friendly, tireless desire to save my life, I would not be here today to be able to see my wife and kids daily. I want to personally thank your staff for their work ethic and would love to meet the persons that saved me in the helicopter. Had it not been for those guys my wife would have buried me days later.”
Thousands of others feel the same way. “There are a lot of people walking the streets today who wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for AirCare,” said paramedic Ricky Harold on AirCare’s fifth anniversary in 1991. “I do it because it’s a real good thing to have.”
A good thing, indeed. But a hard, sacrificial, sometimes dangerous thing as well. The crew members of AirCare know all too well the pain of losing a loved one in a traumatic accident. Seven of their own died in two separate AirCare crashes in 1986 and 1994.
Flight nurses Barbara Burdette and Karen Simpson and pilot Barry Day, who died in September 1986 when the AirCare helicopter crashed on a foggy mountain en route to Galax, VA, are memorialized on a sculpture in the AirCare Memorial Park on the hospital grounds. Local sculptor Earline King fashioned the bas-relief remembrance for the dedication of AirCare Memorial Park in 1991. The inscription reads, in part: “These individuals symbolize the spirit of commitment, compassion, and technical excellence on which this hospital is founded.”
AirCare’s first program director and chief flight nurse, Richard Snow, said shortly before the service began in 1986 that the two main benefits of AirCare are the ability to help trauma victims more quickly, and to safely and rapidly transfer critically injured patients from one hospital to another.
“The promise we make to those who will call on our service is that when they need AirCare, they will be able to count on it,” Snow told the Medical Alumni News of Wake Forest University in April 1986. “That means 24 hours a day, seven days a week, weather conditions permitting.”
In 1994, tragedy struck again near the Bluefield, WV, airport. This second crash took the lives of pilot Tony Barbee, 45; co-pilot Mike Travison, 33; and flight nurses Karen Lynn Canada, 38; and Donna Eaton, 33. Barbee once told a television reporter that what he liked most about his job was seeing the faces of children who were helped by their ride on the Bell 412. Barbee had taken AirCare on more than 750 trips; Travison had logged more than 600 flights.
The black-and-gold helicopter has also landed on happier occasions, such as the dramatic delivery of Santa Claus to visit with children at the hospital. In the summer of 2008, the AirCare crew granted a dying 7-year-old cancer patient’s last wish by giving him a ride over Surry County.
“Center to Provide Air Ambulance Service.” Medical Alumni News of Wake Forest University, April 1986, p. 1.
“NCBH’s AirCare: Air Ambulance Service Celebrates Fifth Year.” Synapse, May 1991, pp. 6-7.
“Profiles of dedication, courage.” Around the Medical Center, May/June 1994. www.myspace.com/aircare_wfubmc. Jan. 21, 2009.