Celebrating 30 Years

Dr. Ira Blumen boards UCAN's new ambulance

UCAN’s 30th anniversary was magical.

Former and current flight nurses, pilots, mechanics, doctors and communications specialists greeted each other with smiles and hugs while sharing stories of their time with the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, which transports critically ill and injured patients and provides emergency medical assistance within 200 miles of the University of Chicago Medicine’s hospitals by helicopter, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

A twin-engine Dauphin 2 helicopter sat proudly in the front of the room, but unlike its hospital counterpart, this one was made of Rice Krispies Treats and chocolate, and was devoured by guests on a wintry January evening at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Oak Brook, IL.

A slide show of photographs ran continuously on a large screen in the banquet room, while video clips from the hugely popular TV show “ER” featuring UCAN played on a screen nearby.

Magician John P. Hopkins entertained with jokes and tricks with a grand finale that will not be soon forgotten.

Dr. Ira Blumen with the new UCAN ambulance

Stunning even UCAN medical director Ira Blumen, MD, Hopkins turned a magic trick into a surprise presentation of a brand new ambulance to UCAN from program partner MedEX Ambulance Service CEO Lauren Rubinson-Morris. The new vehicle, wrapped in a bow, was parked right outside the restaurant’s front door.

The celebration remembered the past and looked to the future for the hospital-based critical care air and ground ambulance service, which has transported nearly 26,000 patients since its inception in December 1983.

“The legacy of our hospital-based program continues,” said Blumen, who became the medical director of UCAN just three-and-a-half years after it began.

Nationwide, the concept of civilian air medical transport began in 1972, with the University of Chicago estimated to have been the 60th medical helicopter program in the country, Blumen said. In 30 years, the industry has grown to 251 programs and 922 helicopters that transport patients as a dedicated medical helicopter, or as a dual-purpose municipal or military helicopter.

One of the biggest changes in UCAN’s history came in 2012, when the program partnered with Air Methods Corporation as a “hybrid” air medical program, Blumen said. While UCAN continues to provide its own dedicated staff of flight nurses, physicians, communications specialists, medical director and chief flight nurse, it leaves the entire aviation operations and much of the business end to Air Methods.

Much of UCAN’s staff has long histories with the program, and “dedicated” just doesn’t do them justice.

Blumen’s first-ever memory of a medical helicopter was watching one take off from Lutheran General Hospital when he was a third-year emergency medicine resident. After doing some research on existing programs for his senior project, he said, “This is what I want to do when I grow up.”

UCAN chief flight nurse and administrative director Kelley Holdren wanted to be a flight nurse since she was in braces. She happened to read an article about UCAN in a magazine in her orthodontist’s office, and it was at that moment she said to herself, “Oh my God, I totally want to fly.”

“I had no idea what a flight nurse was, but I wanted to be one,” Holdren said.

Holdren experienced a particularly memorable flight early on in her career. In transport following a multi-craft response, she administered CPR to one of the victims for 29 minutes straight. At that moment, Holdren just knew she had made the right career choice.

“I absolutely wouldn’t want to do anything else,” she said.

Blumen and Holdren agree that safety has been and will continue to be the most important aspect of UCAN operations.

Advances in safety and technology and decades of support from hospital administration have kept UCAN among the top of medical flight programs. Holdren also credits Dr. Blumen’s extensive air medical safety research, lectures and reports. His research helps keeps the UCAN staff and the entire industry informed and up-to-date on medical helicopter crash statistics and with opportunities to improve safety and to reduce the number of accidents.

“Being better informed helps create a safer environment for us to work,” Holdren said.

With technological advances in night vision goggles, satellite tracking and terrain warning systems, and a Web-based national database available to all medical helicopter programs when the weather is not suited for flying,  “safety has greatly improved, “ Holdren said.

“We have a vision of zero accidents in the industry and I can see UCAN leading the way for years to come.”

For the past 30 years, UCAN has provided a service to hospitals and public safety organizations throughout a four state area. Working with doctors, nurses, EMS providers, firefighters, and police officers, UCAN is committed to being at the forefront of critical care transport for the next 30 years.

January 2014