In flight

Flight nurse Bonnie Guerra looks out the window while riding in a PHI Air Medical helicopter Thursday over Denton County. Medical City Denton has reported an uptick in air flight traffic since the hospital was designated a Level II trauma center in 2017.

One hospital in Denton is cutting down on the time it takes to get the most seriously injured people help.

Since Medical City Denton became a Level II trauma center in the summer of 2017, more people are being flown to Denton from the most devastating car crashes along country roads, ATV accidents, hunting injuries, strokes and heart attacks.

Leaving Dallas-Fort Worth, Medical City Denton is the last major trauma hospital until Oklahoma City. With dwindling rural health care options increasingly being recognized as a public safety issue, the Denton hospital’s trauma staff is considered a win for people who live and work outside the region’s more urban areas.

And now helicopter patients are saved precious minutes flying to Plano, Dallas or Fort Worth.

“These are patients from more rural areas, where there’s no services available,” says Medical City Denton trauma program director Crystal Perry.

The hospital noted about a 55% uptick in helicopter patients over the past year since Medical City Denton’s trauma center was designated Level II, according to the American College of Surgeons.

Checking for supplies

Flight nurse Bonnie Guerra checks for supplies inside the cabin after a flight Thursday in a PHI Air Medical helicopter at Medical City Denton. Medical City Denton has reported an uptick in air flight traffic since the hospital was designated a Level II trauma center in 2017.

Surgeons are on staff to treat open fractures and head and other severe injuries that might require a trip across Dallas-Fort Worth.

“There’s two main reasons why people call a helicopter,” PHI Air Medical paramedic Jason Piecek said. “One of the bigger ones is speed. The other one is level of care.”

On speed, it’s obvious. Flying in a straight line across Interstate 35 and other traffic directly awaiting trauma crews is often better than riding it out in an ambulance.

“The simple rule is, however long it takes you to drive, cut it in half,” Piecek said.

But patients airlifted to the hospital are in the presence of not only a paramedic but also an in-flight nurse.

That means the patients have a better chance at surviving because nurses can give certain drugs to help things like blood pressure. And air crews can start chest tubes to drain blood from lungs and other more direct treatments of major injuries. The helicopters also carry blood for transfusions, unlike most ground ambulances.

“That’s really important whenever you get to that trauma patient,” PHI in-flight nurse Nicole Wright said. “I’ve seen it make a huge difference.”

If dozens of people were ever injured in a mass casualty event at the Winstar Resort and Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma, those victims would be flown to Denton, officials said.


Pilot Bryan Bristow, left, flight paramedic DJ Hudson and flight nurse Bonnie Guerra work as a helicopter crew for PHI Air Medical at Medical City Denton. The hospital has reported an uptick in air flight traffic since the hospital was designated a Level II trauma center in 2017.

The hospital has two helipads, but if more helicopters need to land, crews could set down another one in the parking lot, Perry said.

“To have three at one time, it’s pretty poppin’,” Perry said. “It’s busy.”

Sometimes a helicopter is still running when patients are taken out and into the emergency room. That’s called a “hot” offload, and it happens when the flight crew is short on fuel or the patient needs to be taken immediately to surgery and can’t wait for the blades to stop spinning.

Not all helicopter patients necessarily come in from the countryside. Piecek said sometimes they’ll fly from Medical City to somewhere in Denton to pick up somebody. That happens when it’s taking firefighters a long time to pull somebody from a wrecked car, or when it would take longer for an ambulance to get to a victim on the highway during heavy traffic.

“You know what [the interstate] looks like when there’s an accident,” Perry said.

DALTON LAFERNEY can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @daltonlaferney.

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