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LifeFlight: 40 Years of Quality Care in the Air

NOTE: An earlier version of this article appeared in AHN Network News.

When LifeFlight lifted off the ground from Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) in 1978 with a single French-made Alouette helicopter, it was the first air medical service of its kind in the northeastern U.S., and one of just 10 across the country.

Today, there are hundreds of services, according to the Association of Air Medical Services. But the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) LifeFlight program stands out both in observing its 40th anniversary, and in having transported more than 80,000 patients for emergency care.

“For the last 40 years, LifeFlight has provided quality care and transportation to the patients of the region,” explains Jim Palafoutas, director of operations for the LifeFlight program. “We continue to strive to keep the high quality of care and safety for our patients and the community while undergoing changes necessary for the services we provide day in and day out.”

Patient-Focused from the Start

Air ambulance service was born with the mission of significantly improving a critically injured patient’s chances of survival, mainly by reaching trauma centers within the “golden hour” — the 60 minutes after someone falls ill or is injured.

“Along the way, the focus has been, the entire time, on the patient,” remarks Eric Schmidt, manager of prehospital outreach development, AHN. “There’s been a lot of innovation. The technology changes, from both the aviation side and the medical side. The care that we provide in the helicopter has changed, and the technology allows us to fly safer.”

LifeFlight was the brainchild of Mildred Fincke, former AGH vice president of nursing, who learned about a helicopter service while attending a conference in Denver in 1975. After three years of urging hospital leadership to develop a service here, the first helicopter took flight.

A Team Effort

Screencap from a Living Proof video showing the LifeFlight helicopter lifting off in front of Allegheny General Hospital

LifeFlight was the star of one of AHN’s #LivingProof videos.

For four decades, LifeFlight has been a central component of AHN’s identity as one of the region’s preeminent health care providers, enabling it to expedite the delivery of specialty care to patients in remote communities. The success of LifeFlight is a testament to the dedication, skill and compassion of every health care professional who has been associated with the program through the years — flight nurses, pilots, mechanics, communications specialists and support personnel.

LifeFlight transports patients from within a 130-mile radius of its five primary bases, a service that reaches a population of more than 4 million people throughout western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. In addition to transporting injured patients from the scenes of accidents, LifeFlight also performs hospital-to-hospital transports of critically ill patients, such as those with acute cardiac failure, and infants who require neonatal intensive care.

The current LifeFlight team consists of:

  • 20 pilots
  • 7 mechanics
  • 1 aviation logistic specialist
  • 51 nurses and paramedics
  • 9 communications staff
  • 5 management team members

Several team members, Schmidt notes, have been with LifeFlight for more than 30 years.

“The experience level of our pilots and our clinical staff is just unmatched,” he adds.

“I have been fortunate to work side by side with the region’s finest aviator professionals, clinical team, and communications staff for the last 23 years,” comments Palafoutas. “We not only look on how we take care of our patients today but also into the future. We have been fortunate to enhance our clinical capabilities by replacing and adding new technologies and also enhancements to the aircraft to provide necessary updates for the safety of our patients and staff.”

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