Nearly $500,000 raised to expand MAMA services

In emergency situations where every second counts, the discovery made thousands of years ago by the Greek mathematician Archimedes still holds true: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. However, that can be difficult to find in the winding mountain roads of Western North Carolina — well, unless you’re airborne.

The Mountain Area Medical Airlift, known more commonly by its maternal epithet “MAMA,” provides critical care transportation to Mission Hospital for 17 WNC counties and parts of Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. Between the two helicopters in its fleet, one located at Mission Hospital and the other at Angel Medical Center, MAMA can make about 1,000 flights a year. However, with the region’s population on the rise, MAMA two helicopters may not be enough to serve the community.

“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 that was hurt on a bicycle, somebody fell off of the 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, a nonprofit charity organization, launched a fundraising campaign in January. The goal is to raise $2 million during the next two years in order to add a third helicopter to the medical unit. And when BI-LO Supermarkets presented a $119,000 check to the foundation last Wednesday, June 26, the dream of an additional helicopter is right on track to becoming a reality. 

“We figured it would take a full two years to raise the $2 million we’d like to have $1 million in hand by the end of our fiscal year on Sept. 30,” says Bruce Thorsen, who serves as president of the Mission Foundation. To date, the Foundation has raised nearly half-million dollars to expand MAMA.

The money raised by the Mission Foundation would be used for multiple purposes that include upgrades to various parts of the MAMA program — from life-saving equipment to building hangers for the aircraft at their new locations. However, the biggest need, Thorsen explains, is to be able to be able to serve the community when the medical team gets a call that asks for MAMA’s assistance. Adding third aircraft to MAMA would boosts the total number of flights to around 1,500 a year.

“We’re missing so many calls. The reason we’re missing calls is 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.

Grindstaff, who has been with MAMA for more than 20 years, explains that each helicopter can only transport one person at a time.

“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.

However, Grindstaff shares that the expansion isn’t just about the number of helicopters in the region, but where they are located.

“Right now, we have one helicopter that’s at Mission here in Asheville and one helicopter that’s based at the Angel Medical Center in Franklin. With the expansion, we’ll leave the aircraft in Franklin at the Angel Medical Center and we’ll move the helicopter from the Mission campus somewhere in the region and add a third helicopter somewhere in the region,” he says. “I cant tell where the physical base will be at this time because part of that will be determined by our success with fundraising. Once we’ve succeeded in fundraising, then we can start looking for land leases and areas where we can specifically put a hanger and all of our other infrastructure.”

The top three medical emergencies that MAMA currently responds to are trauma, heart attacks and strokes. But the flight nurse explains that the medical team helps in all kinds of situations from falls off of waterfalls to hiking injuries to premature births. Grindstaff recalls a multiple car pileup that happened near the Asheville Regional Airport that resulted in traffic jams in both lanes where moving a vehicle out or in wasn’t really an option.

“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 35-40 minute flight. When every second counts, its [the helicopter’s] main claim to fame is speed.”

Referencing Archimedes’ principle, Thorsen explains, “Anyone who has lived in Western North Carolina 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 … to get 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.”

For Grindstaff, that straight line 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 “[The expansion] is giving us the ability to reach the people 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.”

To donate directly to Mission Foundation’s fundraising campaign for MAMA, click here and select “MAMA Capital Campaign” from the drop-down menu.

— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140 or


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