Skyservice's air ambulances swoop in when travel turns tragic

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RICHMOND, Va. — Sitting in a seat onboard one of Skyservice Air Ambulance International's jets at the airport here recently, Allianz Global Assistance's Kimberly Seay related a personal story highlighting the value of the company's assistance wing, which she directs.

Two of her family members had been vacationing in Italy when one fell down 12 marble steps and was knocked unconscious, suffering nine fractured ribs, a fractured back and a collapsed lung.

The patient was treated in Italy for about a week, but Seay's team, which includes doctors from the University of Virginia and about 30 registered nurses, recognized that her recovery would be a long haul. They decided to medically evacuate her to Florida, where she lives, on an air ambulance like the one in which Seay was sitting.

Seay's family members had annual travel insurance policies with Allianz. A basic annual policy for a 40-year-old living in Florida is $125, while a deluxe plan is $249, according to Allianz's website. Good thing they had insurance. Seay said the hospital bill totaled some $50,000, and the air ambulance bill was around $85,000.

"You just never know," she said of travel accidents.

Allianz contracts with Skyservice for air ambulance services. According to Seay, Allianz conducted about 500 medical air evacuations in the past year and is on track to surpass that number this year.

I had a chance to fly on one of Skyservice's Bombardier Learjet 45XRs configured as an airborne intensive care unit (ICU) earlier this month.

The plane was configured with six passenger seats and a stretcher. It was small, and moving around took some turning sideways, though it was manageable. The stretcher was positioned against a wall with two seats next to it, well-placed for medical professionals.

Sam Cimone, Skyservice's president and himself a nurse, said the plane can also be configured with two stretchers by removing two seats; the single stretcher can also be moved away from the wall to give medical teams more room to work if necessary.

But, on the ideal flight, the medical professionals won't do much.

"The perfect flight is we do nothing on the flight," Cimone said. "Everything has been done at the hospital before we left."

According to Seay, medical evacuations can be ordered for a number of reasons. For one, the quality of care in a country could trigger an immediate evacuation. In another case, a patient might be in an adequate facility for treatment but could need an air ambulance to get home once they can travel.

Skyservice can mobilize an air ambulance in about two hours. Once the medical team has reached the destination, their first step is to visit the patient and determine any needs prior to evacuation. Ideally, all those needs will be met before taking off.

Transport is typically conducted the next day. In many cases the crew is required by law to rest before traveling again, Seay said.

Skyservice's jets can fly about four and a half hours before refuelling, meaning they can go most places in the world, Cimone said. The planes fly at the same speed as commercial aircraft, but at higher altitudes — around 45,000 feet versus 33,000 — to avoid traffic and turbulence.

While my flight on the jet didn't get up to 45,000 feet because it wasn't necessary on our hour loop around Virginia, the air ambulance was smoother on takeoff and landing than any recent commercial flight I've been on — definitely a benefit for patients.

Cimone said his company has performed more than 27,000 patient transfers worldwide in its 28 years in existence, and it is capable of providing all the care available in a typical ICU.

"We have drugs that can manage a patient who is intubated, ventilated, sedated with complicated conditions such as infectious disease, organ failure, cardiac conditions," he said, "Anything you would typically have in your ICU in your local hospital."

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