In an emergency, where every second counts, the ancient discovery made by Greek mathematician Archimedes still holds true today: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But in the winding mountain roads of Western North Carolina, that can be difficult — unless you're airborne.
The Mountain Area Medical Airlift, known more commonly by its maternal epithet “MAMA,” provides critical-care transport to Mission Hospital for 17 WNC counties and parts of Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. With two helicopters in its fleet — one located at Mission Hospital in Asheville and the other at Angel Medical Center in Franklin — MAMA can make approximately 1,000 flights per year. However, the region's population is on the rise, and that presents a challenge.
“We need some help. We're not able to take care of everybody that we get calls for. So we're having to tell people we can't come because our helicopters are busy taking care of other people,” says MAMA supervisor and flight nurse Johnny Grindstaff. “You can imagine what it's like if you know there's a child who was hurt on a bicycle, somebody fell off a waterfall, somebody had a heart attack or a stroke ... and you can't go help them because you're busy taking care of somebody else.”
Seeing this need in the community, Mission Foundation — the hospital’s nonprofit charity — launched a fundraising campaign in January. The two-year goal is to raise $2 million for adding a third helicopter to the medical unit. And when the supermarket chain BI-LO presented $119,000 to the foundation early this month, the dream drew closer to reality.
“We figured it would take a full two years to raise the $2 million, and we'd like to have $1 million in hand by the end of our fiscal year on Sept. 30,” says Bruce Thorsen, Foundation president. To date, the nonprofit has raised nearly $500,000 dollars to expand MAMA.
The funds will also help upgrade the current fleet, including state-of-the-art avionics, technology and safety equipment. The biggest need, Thorsen explains, is to be able to be able to serve the community when the medical team gets a call for MAMA. “We're missing so many calls [but] not necessarily due to weather. It's due to the fact that both aircraft are busy and we'll get a third call,” he says.
Each helicopter can only transport one person each trip, says Grindstaff, who has been with MAMA for more than 20 years.
“All focus is on one patient at a time. If there's two, then we either have to send both helicopters or, in some cases, use neighboring helicopter systems,” he states.
Where the helicopters are based is just as important as adding more to the service, Grindstaff explains.
He foresees keeping one MAMA chopper in Franklin, one in Asheville and the third somewhere else in the region. “I can’t tell where the physical base will be at this time,” says Grindstaff. “Once we've succeeded in fundraising, then we can start looking for land leases and areas where we can specifically put a hangar and all of our other infrastructure.”
The top three medical emergencies that MAMA currently responds to are trauma, heart attacks and strokes. But Grindstaff explains that the medical team helps in all kinds of situations. He recalls a multiple car pileup that happened near the Asheville Regional Airport, resulting in traffic jams in both lanes. Moving a vehicle out or in wasn't really an option, says the flight nurse.
“They could have been an hour away and they were just right there in Buncombe County. Imagine that same wreck out in Cherokee, out in Boone, or out in Watauga. But if we're going 150 miles per hour, we can turn that flight to Cherokee into a 35- [or] 40-minute flight. When every second counts, [MAMA’s] main claim to fame is speed.”
Thorsen explains, “Anyone who has lived in WNC or visited here understands that to get from one place to another, it's not a straight line. So if you're injured hiking or you have a heart attack and you're deep in the mountains somewhere, [getting] you to a health-care facility that can give you the highest level of care you need is critical. But a helicopter flies in a straight line.”
That can make all the difference.
“If you close your eyes and you picture in your mind that person that means the most to you, whether it's your husband, significant other, mom or dad — if you got a phone call in the next 10 minutes that they had fallen or gotten hurt ... think about how that would make you feel. That's the person we take care of every time we go out,” he says. Adding an extra helicopter gives “us the ability to reach the people who are currently calling us and we can't take care of — and help some more folks in areas that are right on the fringe or the edge of where we currently serve.”
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