University Hospital's Staff for Life Helicopter Service celebrates 30 years

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 | 9:38 p.m. CDT
The new black and gold helicopter arrives at University Hospital during a reception celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Staff for Life Helicopter Service on Wednesday. The McDonnell Douglas MD-902 helicopter has the latest medical equipment including in-flight cardiac monitoring, mobile blood testing and ultrasound. The Staff for Life Helicopter Service is the air ambulance program that serves mid-Missouri.

COLUMBIA — Halloween felt more like Christmas for University Hospital Staff for Life members Wednesday.

The hospital unveiled its newest helicopter, a McDonnell Douglas MD-902 twin-engine aircraft, as part of the Staff for Life Helicopter Service's 30th anniversary celebration.

The new helicopter is not an addition to the University Trauma Center's fleet but rather a replacement for an older helicopter, which had been in use since 1993 and had to be taken out of commission a little more than a year ago. A temporary replacement has been used since then, and the new MD-902 will go into use once pilot training is completed, which is projected to be done in the next one to two weeks.

One of two 902s in the fleet under Air Methods Corp., which owns and operates University Hospital's helicopters, the aircraft is customized in MU's black and gold tradition. The black model includes gold detailing resembling tiger stripes with MU's trademark tiger logo on each side. A logo on the bottom of the helicopter will identify it as an MU unit from below when it is in flight.

"It's gorgeous, I love it," said Leeann Johnson, chief flight nurse for Staff for Life, who has been with the service for 28 years. "It's sexy," she said, with a laugh.

"To finally have it here is fabulous," said Jeffrey Coughenour, co-medical director of the Staff for Life service and a trauma surgeon at University Hospital. "We've been waiting for it to arrive for a few months now."

Coughenour was one of the people who helped select the helicopter. He and Jacob Quick, a general surgeon at University Hospital who has knowledge of graphic design, contributed to the look of the new helicopter.

Some of the features of the new model include a bigger cabin for the nurse, paramedic and patient, an auto-pilot system, a terrain avoidance system, weather information and increased patient lift capabilities. It will also be safer and quieter than the previous model, said Patti Klein, regional vice president for Air Methods Corp.

The Staff for Life Helicopter Service began operations in November of 1982 under the direction of Frank Mitchell, who also founded mid-Missouri's first hospital ambulance service in the 1960s.

Mitchell, an MU graduate, served as a surgeon in a U.S. Army hospital in Germany. In his two years of treating Army trauma patients, he saw the benefits that quick medical care offered a trauma patient.

"That's one of the few positive aspects of the war," Coughenour said. "You learn how to take better care of injured patients."

After serving in the Army, Mitchell returned to his native state to start working at University Hospital, which had been open just two years. He conducted a study in 1980 and found that 40 percent of those who died as the result of serious traumatic incidents might have lived if they had received medical care more quickly.

Because of the numerous rural roads in mid-Missouri, he implemented the helicopter service with a trial air transport program in coordination with the Missouri State Highway Patrol in September of 1980 and began official operations in late November two years later.

The Staff for Life Helicopter Service now has three bases: The "mothership" at University Hospital, one at Lake Ozark General Hospital and another in La Monte. In its 30 years, the Staff for Life Helicopter Service has helped about 30,000 patients, averaging about 1,000 patients per year among the three stations.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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