A look inside Sentara’s Nightingale: A flying intensive care unit

NORFOLK, Va. - On the quiet fifth floor in Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, you will find a stark contrast inside the Nightingale room. This small but mighty flight crew has just received a helicopter request from a 911 dispatcher for a patient in desperate need of emergency medical attention.

With a thorough check of the weather from pilot Jim Garrow and a quick jot of mental notes of what this particular patient may need, flight nurse Maggie McCauley and flight paramedic Scott McClain strap up and prepare to get out of the door and in the air - in less than 10 minutes. 

“It could be for a heart attack victim. It can be for a stroke. It could be for a trauma patient. So, any place that there's a smaller hospital that can't handle that patient and that patient needs to get to a center quickly for advanced treatment, that's when air transportation comes into effect," says Denise Baylous, Nightingale Program Manager. 

The program Nightingale has been with Sentara for 37 years. It’s a not-for-profit organization, and Sentara does recognize the hospital loses money by allowing a community service as a part of its system.

With a six-to-eight-month extensive training period, the flight crew is made up of highly experienced nurses and paramedics who are both fluent in aviation, aircraft terminology and, of course, any medical condition. Both flight nurses and flight paramedics are also fully trained in the cockpit. 

The average amount of time for a patient flight in the air is about 20 minutes, which could double - or even triple - if you’re being transported on the ground.

Not having to worry about ground traffic in an emergency situation, time is still of the essence while in the air. Every second still matters.

When the helicopter arrives on scene, the chopper blades won’t stop as flight nurses work with local EMS agencies , stabilizing the patient as much as possible on the ground first before strapping the stretcher inside the flying ICU.

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"We don't have a lot of room in there, and then as we are transporting we have to stay in our safety belts. So, whatever we can do to get them stabilized and ready for transport is what we try to do on the ground first," says Baylous. 

Inside the helicopter, you will find it’s a fully-functional intensive care unit. The jaw-dropping capabilities and advanced equipment tucked away in the tight space out weigh some smaller hospitals around the region.

The interior was also designed solely by the flight crew so everything crew members need are just a hand reach away.

"This is our ventilator here. Anybody who needs to be intubated or having respiratory issues, we can use this. These are our IV pumps. We normally have three, but we have two chambers with each pump - so, up to six strips. Our ultrasound machine is in the back," says Baylous. 

Last year, Nightingale went up in the air on 722 flights. On average, the program usually receives a call for airlift about four to five times within 24 hours. 

With each call, there is preparation, a sense of urgency and, of course, a route cutting time in half in hopes of saving a life. 

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