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Caring for Patients at 2,500 Feet: What You Don’t Know about Pegasus

It’s 3:30 p.m., and already UVA’s medical helicopter, Pegasus, has been to a car accident scene, a hospital in Danville, back to UVA and finally to their headquarters at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.

Sounds like a typical day for a medical flight crew, except there’s no typical day. One day, they might be stabilizing and flying a newborn from another hospital to UVA, the next day, it might be a farming accident. It’s not unusual for them to fly two or three patients per 12-hour shift, but there are also quiet days where they catch up on office work.

It’s common to see a helicopter (Pegasus is the orange and blue one) in the skies of central Virginia. But how much do you know about Pegasus and medevac (transporting patients by air) helicopters? Some facts:

  • The current Pegasus is an Augusta 109E Power helicopter.
  • UVA’s helicopter is perhaps the best-known part of Pegasus Air & Ground Transport. However, the service also includes UVA’s ambulance and the Newborn Emergency Transport System.
  • Pegasus can land with an instrument approach (IFR), which means it can fly and land safely even if visibility is less than ideal. It cannot, however, fly in icy conditions or if the visibility gets really bad.
  • UVA got its first medevac helicopter in 1984. It was the first of its kind in the central Virginia area and the third in Virginia.
  • Pegasus averages about 50 flights a month and 60-70 miles per flight.
  • In about 60 percent of transports, the patient is already at a hospital but needs more advanced treatment than that hospital can provide.

Why A Medevac Helicopter Instead of an Ambulance?

When treating a life-threatening injury or a stroke, time is everything. First responders and dispatchers call on Pegasus when someone needs an ICU (intensive care unit) immediately.

A medevac helicopter (also known as an air ambulance) “flies much faster and in a straight line. You never have to stop at a stoplight or weave up a hill and down the other side of it, so it cuts the amount of time spent outside the hospital,” says flight paramedic John Legrand.

Pegasus can get to Danville from CHO in 39 minutes, compared to 2.5 hours by ambulance. Culpeper, 45 miles north of Charlottesville, is a 16-minute flight.

Unlike a typical ambulance, Pegasus has:

  • Ultrasound technology on board
  • The ability to land in remote areas that an ambulance couldn’t access easily or quickly
  • A flight RN in addition to a paramedic (someone who has the highest level of EMT training.) Pegasus nurses usually have ICU experience

Pegasus flight supervisor Mike Wasilko says he looks for lots of experience and critical thinking skills when he hires new staff. “In the hospital, you have a lot of resources,” he says. “You can have anyone at your fingertips when you need them.” Pegasus’ flight crew constantly calls UVA doctors and staff, but they have to communicate effectively and accurately over the phone.

One common question: Medevac flights are expensive — are they always necessary?

Wasilko acknowledges that occasionally, the helicopter transports a patient who doesn’t necessarily need that level of care immediately. But the alternative — erring on the side of transporting by ambulance — could be deadly or delay essential care.

The Rooftop Helipad: “Privacy At Their Worst Moment”

UVA recently opened a new helipad on the roof of the hospital. The new helipad provides a faster, more direct route to the Heart Center on the second floor of the hospital. And it’s nine floors above any curious stares.

“We can land on the rooftop, and we can get them into the cardiac catheterization lab, get them into the trauma bay in relative privacy, and I think that means a lot,” Wasilko says. “This patient has privacy at their worst moment.”

Keep Up with Pegasus

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