The helicopters that roar across campus before swooping down to land on the roof of HUP carry patients in need of critical care at one of Penn’s hospitals. Some have been in car accidents; some are being transferred from other hospitals for serious surgical procedures. Bob Higgins has the job of making sure everything goes smoothly. As program manager for PennSTAR, the University’s helicopter flight team, Higgins is responsible for overseeing 71 pilots, plus mechanics and medical crew members, and ensuring that the in-flight paramedics and nurses have everything they need to swiftly transport patients and take care of them in the air. And with an average of 2,100 patients a year, that’s a lot of people to take care of.
Higgins, 41, has plenty of hands-on experience for the job: he worked as a paramedic and nurse and still flies at least once a month.
Q. What equipment do you have on the helicopters?
A. They contain all of the things we would use in an accident. We can put breathing tubes in patients or start an IV. Up there we have a multipurpose monitor that’ll measure the oxygen concentration in the patient’s blood and how much carbon dioxide they’re exhaling.
We can load up a syringe full of medication and then we can program how fast or how slow the medications are going in.
We have oxygen, suction. Pretty much everything we need to get the job done.
Q. What are the challenges of caring for someone in the air as opposed to on the ground?
A. The difference is our patients tend to be a lot sicker—that’s why they’re going by air. They don’t have the luxury of time. We try to support whatever therapy has been initiated by the sending hospital or the ground ambulance and then a lot of times, you hit the air and maybe things aren’t being done the right way. We sort of right the wrongs and start getting patients the kind of therapy that they need.
Q. What types of situations do you handle?
A. About 60 percent of our cases are trauma-related. About 40 percent are a mix of neurological, neurosurgical, cardiac and pulmonary problems. Most of our activities are geared toward accident scene patients.
Q. How much ground do you cover?
A. For [accident] scenes, we work an area approximately 40 miles from Center City. …
Now if you want to talk about hospital patients, the area is much bigger. We can go as far north as New York, as far west as State College, as far south as the southernmost tip of Delaware and as far east as the entire state of New Jersey. …
Forty percent of our total flight time occurs in June, July, August and September, and that’s just because in the summer people are out. In the summer, you can get powdered with five to six flights a shift. Each flight from start to finish takes about two hours to complete.
Q. Where are the choppers based?
A. There’s one at Blue Bell, at Wings airport, one in West Chester at the Brandywine airport and the third is in Nazareth.
Q. How long does it take to fly from Blue Bell to here with a patient?
A. Blue Bell to here is about 5 minutes. West Chester to here is about 10 minutes. Nazareth to here, depending on which aircraft, about 20, 25 minutes.
We have two BK-117, and we have one August Power at the Nazareth base, which is much faster. That aircraft actually goes 180 miles an hour.
Q. Have many of your pilots served in the military, where they got flight training?
A. A lot of them still do. Ten out 12 are either present military or ex-military.
Q. How is everything coordinated between the 911 call and the pilots?
A. The call center is the nerve center of all of the operations. These guys field all of the incoming requests for the flights, determine the location, convert that into the latitudes and longitudes that pilots need in order to fly. … The flight crew will then take the latitudes and longitudes, put them into a computer in the helicopter, convert the location into a compass heading and a distance, look down, and they should see somebody who wants the help.
Q. Do you go up there anymore?
A. I cover if someone calls out sick. Generally, I try to fly at least once a month.
Q. Do you miss flying all the time?
A. Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s hard when you’ve been somebody who’s in a clinical position to ever really leave that. My position now is primarily administrative, but … you have to have the clinical knowledge. …I have great crews who take great care of patients. I would trust any members of my family with any one of them anytime. All of us know there is a need for our services. We get patients out of bad situations and get them to a place where they can be taken care of, and we keep them alive along the way. The environment in the back of that helicopter is very cramped yet you do it and you do it very well.
Originally published on October 7, 2004