By George LaRue
It was a Tuesday in Utopia, Texas and I was having a heart attack that was going to end my life.
The day had been normal in pretty much every way. No dark clouds. No signs that it would be different than any other Tuesday, but oh was it.
I was standing in Hidden Treasures, a charming little gift shop in our small town, when I collapsed.
I had no warning. No chest pain, no shortness of breath. I don’t remember anything about it even happening. One minute I’m browsing knickknacks and the next minute I’m gone.
In our part of Texas, it’s remote living — by design. We like the wide-open spaces and the small-town feel. The trade-off though is that Utopia, much like a lot of Texas and the nation for that matter, is more than an hour by car from a critical care emergency room.
Our volunteer EMS folks do a great job, but they’re limited in what they can do and in critical situations, we all want to know that someone else is going to be there to save us.
When I collapsed, local volunteer EMTs found me and immediately called AirLife in San Antonio. The helicopter came, landed just outside the store, the crew stabilized me, and got me where I needed to go. All together it took AirLife about a half an hour, when an ambulance would have taken about twice that probably.
It’s weird when you hear people you don’t know talking about you and the miracle of your survival.
According to a gentleman named Lee Fernandez, who works for AirLife’s parent company called Air Methods, “This man (that’s me), literally had a zero chance of survival three years ago.” What he was talking about is that today, access to air medical transport, advanced air EMT training, and new medical protocols, gave me the same chance of surviving my heart attack in Utopia as I would have had in downtown San Antonio.
Just because this critical service currently exists, does not mean it’s here to stay.
Much like many rural hospitals that are faced with impossible financial circumstances, air medical transport bases are being forced to close around the nation, leaving Americans without access to life-saving care. Already, 85 million of our fellow citizens (1 in 4) can only reach a Level 1 or 2 Trauma Care facility within an hour if they are brought there by a helicopter air ambulance.
The finances of air medical services are tough because they’re required by law to deploy when they are called regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, about 70 percent of these trips are paid for by some type of government insurance like Medicare or Medicaid, and the government reimbursement rates only cover about 50 percent of the actual cost.
New federal legislation that would improve matters is now working its way through the process. HR 3378, the Ensuring Access to Air Ambulance Services Act, has been introduced by Reps. Jackie Walorski, R-Indiana, and a bipartisan group of five other members of Congress, including Dallas-based Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas. Hopefully, it’ll get enough traction to make it to the President’s desk for his signature soon.
For me, that helicopter and its crew gave me another chance at life. Another chance to go sailing and fishing with my boys and to visit all of my children scattered across the world. This whole experience has put everything in perspective.
According to Save Our Air Medical Resources, a coalition working to ensure access to air medical helicopters, more than 22 percent of hospitals have closed since 1990, with hundreds more at risk of closing. This jeopardizes access to care to millions of Americans who live in rural areas like me.
With the air medical industry under constant threat of having to close down bases servicing rural areas because of the incredibly challenging finances those businesses face, I want to ask you to join me in standing with them. Because one day, you may go through what I went through.
Protecting the folks who work in the emergency air medical industry is just like protecting yourself and your family.
George LaRue is a resident of Utopia, Texas in Uvalde County, west of San Antonio. This oped was submitted by a representative of Save Our Air Medical Resources.