On a crisp, fall morning on the west end of the Children's Hospital Central California campus, George the giraffe waved an orange pair of marshal flags to signal the approach and landing of Air George – the Valley’s only dedicated, pediatric medical helicopter. A brilliant blue, the aircraft prominently displays the Hospital’s mascot wearing a cape and flying through the air.
“We’ve got the largest flying giraffe in America,” said Fred Buttrell, chief executive officer, Med-Trans Corporation of Dallas. Children's Hospital first contracted with Med-Trans 12 years ago to provide helicopters and pilots for the safe and efficient transfer of critically ill and injured patients. “We partner with hospitals and tailor-make solutions for them,” he said, adding that the first Air George flight occurred in August 2000 to Porterville. Back then Med-Trans provided Bell 407s. The new EC-135 helicopter features the latest technology and significantly more interior room than the original Air George helicopters.
“We call it ‘Blue George,’” said Stela Morford, RN, Children's Hospital transport coordinator. ”Like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon, we had ‘Red George’ and now we have this beautiful, new, blue George.”
A handful of patients and Hospital staff gathered near the helipad adjacent to the ambulance bay for the helicopter’s debut. After welcoming the small crowd, Todd Suntrapak, president and chief executive officer, Children's Hospital, thanked the Guilds of Children’s Hospital for the important role they played in bringing air transport services to the Hospital.
“The Guilds were on the ground floor to provide facilities for the pilots and technical crew,” said Suntrapak. “If not for them, we wouldn’t have the program we have today.”
The Guilds gave a total of $2 million for the construction of the Hospital’s state-of-the-art heliport. Suntrapak stressed the importance of air transport to effectively cover the 45,000-square-mile region served by Children's Hospital Central California. He also noted the transport team handles more than 500 helicopter transfers annually.
Composed of highly skilled critical-care nurses and respiratory therapists, the Hospital’s transport team assesses and prepares medically fragile neonates, infants and children for their journeys aboard Air George. Transport team members closely monitor patients en route and maintain ongoing communication with a pediatric intensivist during transport.
“It’s a vital service for our Hospital,” said Morford. “There’s nothing more rewarding than feeling like you can make a difference and that’s what this program does.” Morford noted that the new helicopter loads from the rear, making it much easier to quickly slide in isolettes and gurneys. The larger aircraft also features additional seating, opening the door to invite one parent to ride along once the proper policies are in place.
“Air transport is a team sport,” said Buttrell, who took the helm of Med-Trans after 10 years as an F-15 fighter pilot for the United States Air Force. “It takes mechanics, pilots and caregivers to operate a program like this.”
As former military men, both Buttrell and Father Simon Howson, a beloved chaplain at Children’s, know of the long-standing tradition in aviation to hold a blessing for new aircraft. Father Simon blessed Air George at the conclusion of the event. His prayer asked for God’s protection “in sunny days and rainy nights, whenever this helicopter takes flight.”
After Air George was sprinkled with holy water, several patients had an opportunity to climb aboard the duly commissioned helicopter, which will carry many more patients in the years ahead. Like a superhero flying to the rescue, Air George whisks children away from critical conditions and carries them to receive lifesaving care at Children's Hospital Central California.