WAILUKU - Since a new emergency medical helicopter began operating in Maui County on June 1, it has transported six patients on what its crew members describe as quieter, faster and smoother flights.
"It's basically the ultimate," said Candy Lahm, chief flight medic, who was aboard to provide care to patients on two of the flights Thursday. "We're just so excited."
Paramedics and emergency medical technicians, hospital officials, and state and county lawmakers were among those who got a closer look at the new Bell 430 helicopter during a blessing Friday at the helipad at Maui Memorial Medical Center.
Mayor Alan Arakawa (second from right) gets a closer look at the Bell 430 emergency medical helicopter Friday.
The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo
The helicopter replaces the smaller Bell 222 helicopter that had been in service since September 2004, when operations began.
The Bell 222 will continue to be used as a backup, ensuring continuous emergency medical helicopter service for patients on Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said Curt Morimoto, Maui County operations manager for American Medical Response.
The company has the state contract to run the helicopter patient transport services and provide the specially trained paramedics and emergency medical technicians who staff the medical transports.
"We shouldn't have any days where we don't have a helicopter," Morimoto said.
"Before, when one went down for service, we were out of service."
"It all plays into our goal of better patient care," said Ryan Joslin, spokesman for the Maui County Paramedics Association. "It's pretty cool for Maui."
Morimoto said the new helicopter was obtained through additional funding from the state Legislature, which worked with county officials to begin the helicopter service eight years ago.
Morimoto said state Sen. Roz Baker, then chairwoman of the Health Committee, was a "champion" of the effort to secure the state funding through special legislation that hinged on Maui County paying half the cost.
"I think we've done it the most cost effective way it could be done. It's been a good collaboration," Baker said. "Even when times got tough, the state and the county hung in there because they know how critical the service is. I just can't imagine not having the service. There's no bridge between here and Molokai and Lanai."
Mayor Alan Arakawa said he realized that "this was something this county sorely needed" when he was mayor 10 years ago and the effort to provide funding for emergency medical helicopter service began.
"Since then, this helicopter has saved countless lives," he said. "It's one of the basic services that every community should have."
With the state funding the additional $600,000 annually that was needed to lease the new helicopter, the county's portion of the funding now represents about one-third of the annual $2 million cost, said Dr. Linda Rosen, chief of Emergency Medical Services and Injury Prevention System Branch for the state Department of Health.
"This has been a 10-year process," Rosen said. "You can't find another example like this in the state."
Since the service began, it has handled 340 medical missions, 18 percent from Molokai, Morimoto said. Several of the Molokai transports have been from Kalaupapa.
Morimoto recalled that one of the first medevac missions was to tend to a shark bite victim on the East End of Molokai. "Everyone was just amazed," he said, when the helicopter brought the patient to Maui Memorial Medical Center "faster than had the patient been taken to Molokai General by ground ambulance."
The emergency medical helicopter service also has relied on partnerships with private companies, the Maui County Fire Department and the hospital, Morimoto said.
Both Rosen and Wesley Lo, Maui Memorial's chief executive officer, said they hoped to see patients transported by helicopter to the hospital not just from Maui County but from other islands.
"You're going to see the helicopter point more and more to Maui Memorial because of the services here," Rosen said. "It's really a very, very valuable tool. With a helipad and a quickly available crew, there will be more flights. You can't put a price on a life."
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.