New MGH helicopter set to enter service

MARQUETTE – Marquette General Hospital announced today that a newly added helicopter to its fleet of emergency vehicles will enable emergency responders to expand care by providing around-the-clock air ambulance coverage for residents across the Upper Peninsula.

The helicopter, which goes into service Monday, will be stationed at the Delta County Airport in Escanaba. At a planned media event this afternoon, the hospital was expected to fly the air ambulance to the Berry Events Center for an unveiling and introduction.

The chopper is owned and operated by Valley Med Flight, a Grand Forks, North Dakota-based air ambulance service provider which, in addition to locations in North Dakota and Montana, currently operates a fixed-wing air medical base in Iron Mountain.

Financially, the service will operate completely independently of MGH, though it will fly with the hospital’s logo.

“They made a business decision that they could make this work,” said Dave Edwards, director of communications at MGH. “So it isn’t something that Marquette General is subsidizing, but embraced with open arms in terms of a very much-needed emergency service that we can utilize.”

Edwards, MGH CEO Ed Banos, and the directors of the hospital’s cardiac and trauma centers, said the air ambulance will benefit patients across the U.P. by greatly decreasing response time, as well as providing assistance to local first-responders, EMS, fire and law enforcement.

“We are pleased to have our trusted partner, Valley Med Flight, provide this service for the people of the Upper Peninsula,” Banos said in a press release Wednesday. “Our primary concern as a regional medical center is providing excellent care to our patients and having an air ambulance is going to advance the health and safety of our patients to the next level.”

One of the sites the hospital is currently considering for the construction of a landing pad is on property it owns at the corner of Seventh and Magnetic streets.

“There’s only a few options in that general area. There’s also a big parking lot there that could be converted, but we need to talk more with the city on that,” Edwards said. “We need to really get our planning more firm. We want to make sure that prior to moving forward with that, we sit down and meet with representatives from the neighborhood so we can explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

However, some residents who live near the proposed site have concerns about noise, safety and traffic problems. They said the development of a landing pad in their neighborhood doesn’t make sense, considering that the hospital will be moving locations in the next couple of years. And they especially decried what they said was a lack of notification from the hospital.

“You go to the hospital website, you’ll find press releases like crazy about what their big introduction was (today), with no word going to the local residents,” said Gregg Beukema, who lives on the 1100 block of Seventh Street. “Now (that) we put up a stink, suddenly, ‘Oh … that’s why we’re willing to cooperate with you.'” he said. “Come on, guys. You got caught with your hand in the candy jar.”

“There has never been one representative from the hospital coming to tell us that this was on – you know, usually they’ll come and ask questions around the neighborhood or tell you what they’re going to do,” said Sue Hewitt, who said she lives about 100 feet from the proposed site at Seventh and Magnetic. “Not one has told us. We learned from people working at the hospital, kind of laughing, saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to get to watch the helicopter come in.'”

In the meantime, as in the past, the helicopter will continue to use the Berry Events Center parking lot off Fair Avenue as the go-to site for bringing patients in to MGH; the hospital has also, at various times, used the Lakeview Arena parking lot and Northern Michigan University’s practice fields near the Superior Dome.

Beukema and Hewitt said they don’t see why the hospital can’t continue to use sites at those locations.

“They can land there, or they can land here and disrupt people’s lives. For what, two years, ’til they move? It just, it doesn’t make sense,” Beukema said. “If they have to land it here, they’ve got to shut Seventh Street down. Because if you’ve ever seen when they bring them in over Lakeview Arena, they got fire trucks and squad cars and all sorts of stuff hanging around. It’s just nuts. This street can’t handle the traffic now.”

Edwards said getting the landing zone as near the hospital’s emergency department is a top priority.

“The closer you can make that landing zone to that emergency treatment, the better chance that patient has to survive,” he said.

He added that, though the landing zone would only be used until the hospital relocates, those years could save many lives.

“Yes, it’s a two-year situation, because we’ll be moving in about two-and-a-half years. But how many lives can you save in that two-and-a-half years with a service like this?” he said. “The bottom line is, we’re one of the last tertiary care centers – if not the last tertiary care center – in the state of Michigan that doesn’t have regular helicopter service. We need this. The region needs it. If you look at the demographics and the geographics of our region, we need this tremendously. There may be a noise inconvenience there, but can (nearby residents) balance that against the real life-saving capabilities of this tool? And hopefully we can sit down with those folks and we can get there.”

Beukema said he doesn’t see much difference between the current sites and the proposed one, in terms of speed or efficiency of delivering care.

“Once the helicopter takes off, they know half an hour, 45 minutes in advance that somebody’s coming in, giving them plenty of time to get an ambulance over … to that field they’ve got now, for two or three years,” he said. “If it was a permanent situation, I might look at it differently. But it’s not a permanent situation.”

Edwards said that it takes 15 to 20 minutes to get a patient from the Berry parking lot to the ER, as it takes time to prepare and transfer them safely from the helicopter to the ambulance.

Hewitt said that she plans to get the word out among her neighbors in the area, many of whom she said have no idea what the hospital is proposing.

“My little corps of neighbors here living right on the border will be taking to the streets and knocking on doors and just informing what’s going on here,” she said. “Because all of our house values – they can’t be going up. People are going to be shocked.”

For Edwards and MGH, the medical benefits outweigh the inconveniences of those living in the neighborhood.

“The folks in the U.P. are going to be grateful they’ve got this. And hopefully we can get the neighbors to embrace this in the spirit we’re going into it with,” he said. “We may ask them to think about what if it was one of their loved ones on that helicopter? It isn’t something that we believe strongly, it’s something that we know for a fact – this is going to save a lot of lives down the road.”

One of Beukema and Hewitt’s final concerns is an aesthetic one.

Paraphrasing singer Joni Mitchell, Beukema said, “Why tear down another tree and put in a parking lot?”