Chattanooga's Erlanger Health System upgrades Life Force with new helicopter

The new aircraft is able to treat patients with more complex health problems

Patients with complex health problems require more sophisticated equipment and medical professionals to care for them, which is why Erlanger Health System is adding a new air ambulance to replace one of its six helicopters that serve the Chattanooga region.

"One thing that we saw very quickly with COVID is we really needed some high-tech capabilities to maintain those critically-ill patients," Robbie Tester, Life Force senior director, told the hospital board recently.

The new aircraft unveiled Tuesday is larger and able to transport patients who need ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation - a temporary support system for patients with severe respiratory or cardiac failure that works like an external lung by pumping and restoring oxygen to the blood.

It also features balloon pumps for patients who require cardiovascular support and a liquid oxygen system onboard to enable longer transports.

Dr. Anuj Sinha, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's Hospital at Erlanger, said via email that because the new helicopter is larger and can hold more people, it will enable the whole neonatal transport team to travel by air to Erlanger's referring hospitals and return to intensive care in a "much shorter time" than the team does currently.

Erlanger's neonatal transport teams routinely require three specialized clinicians to safely move the smallest patients, according to a news release from Erlanger. Those clinicians are in addition to the flight crew on board.

"No longer will we need ground transport to return from the outlying hospitals when moving our sickest neonatal patients," Sinha said.

Erlanger is home to the Chattanooga region's only level 1 trauma center, which is where the most critically injured or ill patients are taken for treatment, as well as the highest level neonatal intensive care unit.

The new helicopter will replace the former Life Force helicopter stationed in Cleveland, Tennessee, which is the closest base to Erlanger's main hospital. An Erlanger spokesperson said via email that being close by makes it easier to pick up the neonatal intensive care unit team members in Chattanooga and bring them to assist with transport.

Erlanger is rolling out its upgraded aircraft just weeks after announcing that all of its Life Force air ambulances will carry units of Type O whole blood on every flight. In addition to oxygen-carrying red blood cells, Type O whole blood has all the clotting factors and proteins needed in patients experiencing severe blood loss.

The new aircraft not only increases Erlanger's medical capabilities but includes aviation electronic upgrades, such as three-axis autopilot, moving map display, a terrain/traffic avoidance system, color weather radar and the ability for one pilot to fly in low visibility conditions relying almost entirely on instruments.

Life Force began in 1988 with one aircraft and has since grown to six with more than 100 clinicians transporting approximately 3,000 patients each year, Tester said.

In addition to Cleveland, there are air ambulance stations in Winchester and Sparta, Tennessee; Blue Ridge and Calhoun, Georgia; and Andrews, North Carolina.

(READ MORE: Erlanger's Life Force helicopter will no longer be based in Chattanooga)

The crew is comprised of a pilot, flight nurse and flight paramedic at each base who provide on-the-scene and in-flight critical care treatment, such as trauma service, heart and stroke intervention, pediatric care and high-risk labor and delivery services to patients on board, according to a news release.

Communication specialists, aviation and maintenance technicians and an educational, outreach and leadership team also support the program.

Tester said at the board meeting that each aircraft is owned by Texas-based Med-Trans Corp., which also provides the flight crew members, while Erlanger staffs the clinicians onboard.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.