“There’s someone up there fighting for their life”

The routes IU Health Lifeline helicopters fly have changed … and so have the type of patients they carry

The night sky near my home has been eerily silent for more than a week now, and a little less sad.

A LifeLine helicopter, now flying to the north side of town. (Courtesy IU Health)

Nearby Bloomington Hospital closed in early December and relocated  to its modern new facility on the north side of town. The LifeLine helicopters that regularly flew in to the downtown hospital are no longer seen or heard.

It doesn’t mean they aren’t still operating. They’re just flying into a different location, far enough away that I don’t hear or see them. But it does mean I don’t take a few moments almost every night to think about them, and their mission, as I have for the past several years.

I didn’t think much about them at all, actually, until the subject somehow came up in a conversation with my sister. She lives near a hospital in her city as well, and said when she hears and sees the helicopter overhead, she always thinks “There’s someone up there fighting for their life.”

After that, every time I heard a helicopter off to the west, I watched. Sometimes the copters flew in on a beeline. Sometimes it appeared that maybe the pilot wasn’t completely familiar with the site, the helipad, or what have you, and the helicopter would circle and take a different approach.

And the whole time, I’d be thinking to myself, “Someone is fighting for their life up there.” Or maybe that someone is unconscious, and nurses, paramedics and other medical professionals are working like mad to stabilize the person.

Car wreck? Heart attack? Stroke?

Who else is being traumatized right now, I think, because they know the patient in that LifeLine helicopter and they know they don’t call it LifeLine for nothing.

Longtime emergency room physician Rob Stone says during his tenure in that field, LifeLine calls were mostly the result of high impact automobile accidents, fractured pelvises and bones crushed to the extent that high level orthopedic specialists and equipment would surely be needed.

There were probably more heart attack, stroke and obstetrician calls at the time when the IU Health LifeLine service launched in 1979. Today the IU Health system that serves Bloomington has five helicopters and six critical care bases located strategically across the state. IU Health says it transports about 24,000 patients a year.

Currently, as Indiana has been identified as one of the four states responsible for half of the country’s Covid surge, Lifeline helicopters are being used to get patients to Intensive Care Units that aren’t filled to capacity.

Think about that, and the push by Republican legislators to ban vaccine mandates. Covid is surging and the state is one of the worst in the nation in vaccination rates already. There might be a connection there.

Stone, now a hospice and end-of-life specialist, says we’re lucky in one respect. He works for IU Health but if he’s an advocate for anything, it’s affordable health care. “Most of the country is serviced by for-profit air ambulance systems that aren’t in anyone’s (health) plans,” he says. The costs can be astronomical.

Just ask Josh Perry and Shelli Yoder. In the summer of 2019 their 10-year-old daughter, Oakley, was bitten by a copperhead snake at a summer camp in southern Illinois. She was rushed to Evansville and then taken by air ambulance to Indianapolis. 

Total cost of the incident? $143,000 – which included four vials of an antivenom drug that a National Public Radio story said was marked up more than five times the $3,200 per vial list price of the drug. The drug purchased in Mexico costs $100-$200 per vial.

The air ambulance was billed at $55,000. 

Health cost specialists say the family was lucky that it could stitch together a couple of sources to cover the $143,000 initial bill. They wouldn’t have been looking at anything close to the air ambulance charge had an IU Health Lifeline helicopter been the responder. The cost would have been greatly mitigated by being in the IU Health network.

So add “medical costs that could bankrupt us” to the trauma buffeting those privately owned air ambulances on their journeys.

Include that in your thoughts when you see and hear those helicopters. Yeah, people are up there fighting for their lives – physically and, possibly, financially. 🐝