Community Columns

Air ambulances essential to emergency care in small towns, like Sonora

One of the most terrifying scenes is an overloaded hospital emergency room following a major disaster or emergency. Add to that extreme under-staffing and service reduction, especially in rural hospitals, and it turns nightmarish.

Thankfully, the saving grace filling the void in recent years is emergency air ambulances and the vital life-sustaining services they provide.

Imagine you’re an emergency room doctor in a small town in rural California. Think Sonora or Mariposa. Broken bones, workplace accidents and illness are all in the day’s job. Now imagine a 20-car pileup occurs on Highway 120 as families make their way to Yosemite. Despite all your training and experience, your ER will be overwhelmed with an influx of more trauma patients than it’s equipped to handle.

With air medical rescue, those patients will arrive having been treated by a highly trained, highly skilled flight crew. In addition to providing urgent care in the air and transporting patients to trauma centers, the air medic crew can assist and ease the pressure on the overburdened ER staff.

I’ve witnessed this scenario from both sides of the table — as an emergency room physician and as medical director for an air ambulance service in Modesto and Sonora. From working overnights at the E.R. to serving on the governing board of the hospital, I have seen how events unfold on the hospital floor at midnight to how decisions are made at the highest levels by hospital boards.

And I know the facts we’re dealing with. Hospitals across the state are closing at an alarming rate — since 1998, more than 60 emergency rooms in California have closed with rural areas among hit the hardest.

Today, millions of Californians live more than an hour ambulance drive away from a major trauma center. This includes a significant number of our state’s seniors and veterans.

Pediatric emergencies require specialized treatment at designated trauma centers. Yet 32 percent of California children live up to 30 miles from a high-level pediatric trauma center, and nearly a third live even farther away from one of these facilities.

Air ambulance services are a critical part of our healthcare network — saving crucial time and providing trauma suite-level care in the air. In an emergency, every second counts. Air ambulances can get urgent care to patients in minutes, not hours, making all the difference in a patient’s outcome.

Now, Governor Newsom and the State Legislature will decide whether this critical medical service will remain accessible to all Californians in their time of need. Assembly Bill 651 (Grayson) would assure ongoing funding for air ambulances, while strengthening important consumer safeguards.

If this bill doesn’t pass, air ambulance funding will be in jeopardy, putting millions of Californians at risk. Air medical bases may need to close or cut back on the services they are able to provide. Coupled with the increasing number of hospital closures, this would be a devastating one-two punch to our communities.

On behalf of emergency room doctors and the patients we serve, I implore our state leaders to take action now to save air ambulances and save lives. In an era of worsening natural and human disasters, our communities need this essential medical service now more than ever.

Dr. Robert Donovan is an emergency medicine physician with Doctors Medical Center and medical director of the PHI Air Medical air ambulance services in Modesto and Sonora. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.