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Sentara raises funds for new helicopter

The nearly 25-year-old Sentara Nightingale Regional Air Ambulance isn't exactly the picture of health that it projects.

The helicopter, which flies patients from trauma scenes and transports them speedily between hospitals, is showing its age. Those who operate it are afraid the maintenance it requires will take it out of service when it's needed.

"An older aircraft is more likely to be broken down when you least need it to be," said Chris Cannon, program manager.

But it will cost $7.2 million to buy a new helicopter for a program that operates on a roughly $650,000 annual deficit.

Sentara Healthcare's board asked the health system's foundation to help raise part of the cost for buying and outfitting a new medical helicopter. So far, the foundation has raised about $2.2 million of the $3.5 million it agreed to.

"We lose a significant amount of money on these programs," Meril Amdursky, executive director of the Sentara Healthcare Foundation, said of the helicopter and level 1 trauma center at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

But it's part of Sentara's not-for-profit mission, a service to the community, she said.

"We're inviting the community, who are the beneficiaries, to participate," she said of fundraising.

The helicopter makes 600 to 650 flights a year. About 10 percent to 13 percent of the chopper's flights are on the Peninsula, providing backup coverage for Riverside Health System's West Point-based helicopter and another service in Richmond, Cannon said.

The average flight costs $4,400, which is reimbursed by an average of $3,500.

The helicopter responds to trauma scenes, such as bad car accidents; transports people in rural areas who are suffering from strokes or heart attacks; and carries burn victims to Sentara Norfolk General's burn center. It also ferries critical patients between hospitals so they can receive specialized care.

The helicopter houses a veintilator, a balloon pump for some cardiac patients and medications that standard field medics don't have access to. It flies with a nurse and a critical care paramedic, Cannon said.

"It's a flying ICU, from an equipment and personnel standpoint," Cannon said. "It's more equipped than an ambulance."

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