At the speed of life: Medical choppers begin Sanford service

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The Agusta 109 in flight, with some of its dashboard instrumentation, inset. (Courtesy photo/Lifeflight of Maine)

SANFORD - The health and well being for folks in Lebanon and all of York County soared to new heights this week with the installation of a Lifeflight of Maine helicopter at the Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport.

"These aircraft are like flying emergency rooms," said an enthusiastic Rachel Paling, communications director for Lifeflight, which is based in Lewiston and Bangor.

The Agusta 109 is a twin jet small, light helicopter that can cruise at 165 mph, making the flight from Lebanon to Maine Medical Center in about 20 minutes or even less.

To add to the lifesaving potential, crews normally have liftoff within 10-12 minutes of being toned out.

Thanks to the donation of temporary crew quarters space from the Sanford Fire Department, the lifesaving service began on Monday with a 9 a.m.-9 p.m. schedule. They hope to be 24/7 by sometime in May, Paling said.

By then the hangar they are currently using at the Sanford airport should be equipped with its own quarters for crew, which would include about 28 members for a full round-the-clock complement.

The helicopter crew includes a pilot, a paramedic and a nurse and can handle up to two patients, Paling said, plus about $500,000 worth of life-saving equipment.

That equipment includes special body function monitors, ventilators for breathing for unconscious patients, a handheld blood analysis kit and a blood monitor to indicate if the treatment personnel on the aircraft are administering needs to be adjusted.

The chopper is also equipped with advanced communication technology that allows the receiving hospital to access patient condition while inflight.

"These aircraft have more sophisticated equipment than some of your smaller hospitals," Paling said.

Another nice thing about all that equipment is that if weather conditions prohibit flying, it can be loaded into an ambulance for an emergency transport, Paling added.

For heart attack and stroke victims as well as severe injuries from burns and vehicular crashes, the addition of this new aircraft so close could spell the difference between life and death, but it doesn't come cheaply.

A typical Lifeflight mission can cost a patient about $10,000-$12,000, however much of that is usually paid by insurance, said Paling, who added nationwide averages are a lot higher, about $30.000 per flight.

But the chopper carries a hefty price itself. The one recently purchased and working out of Sanford cost about $6.5 million.

The Sanford chopper joins others already in use in Lewiston and Bangor.

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