Rotors whirling on the top and rear, cardiac monitor blinking deep inside, the helicopter carrying the 2-month-old baby whose heart had gone haywire whap-whap-whapped its way through the thick Southern California air.
Fifteen miles and a mere six minutes later, the chopper touched down on the helipad atop Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach. A doctor and nurse bounded off, detached the life-support unit with the baby inside and bundled the whole package onto a gurney for the trip two floors down to the pediatrics ward.
The chopper lifted off, its place taken within minutes by another helicopter, this one based at UCI Medical Center in Orange. Pilot Joe Sulak off-loaded the snakebite victim he had ferried from Catalina, cleared up the paper work and headed back through what he called "the wild brown yonder" to Orange.
The helicopter, which takes off and lands on a fenced-off square of concrete at the UCI Medical Center parking lot, acts as an angel of mercy on an average of once a day, rescuing surfers battered by the waves at Dana Point, motorists over the side of Ortega Highway and critically ill infants in Brea, as well as snakebite victims on the island 26 miles across the sea.
Operated by Memorial Medical Center and known as Partners in Lifeflight, the flying ambulance service is one of about 155 such operations across the country. With the demise of the helicopter service operated by Western Medical Center in Santa Ana last December for financial reasons, the UCI chopper is now the only hospital-based helicopter in Orange County.
Wendy Biggar, a flight nurse who is the Lifeflight program director, said that although some police departments and the Orange County Sheriff's Department have helicopters, their primary missions are law enforcement, while the sole mission of the hospital copters is medicine.
"It's our whole purpose in life," Biggar said. "We don't fight fires, we don't do search and rescue."
Most of the helicopter flights are transfers of patients from one hospital to another, generally to an institution better equipped to handle a problem. Very few are rescues of accident victims.
In either case, a helicopter "can be a life-saving tool" for a hospital, said Dr. Kym Salness, director of the emergency department at UCI Medical Center and a leader of the campaign to base a helicopter there. "It saves time, and time is of the essence, time is salvage."
The helicopters do not come cheap, however.
An hour in the air costs about $3,000. Insurance may take up the bulk of that cost, but the hospital loses about $570 for the hour's flight, Biggar said.
Why do they do it? It is good public relations, according to many in the industry.
"You hope they do things for marketing," Salness said. A helicopter lets a hospital point to its new toy as an example of its high-tech services, right up there with the latest heart monitor or blood analyzer, he said.
The tall, blond and handsome doctor--who keeps a football on his bookshelf along with tomes on emergency medicine and snakebite treatments--said that in arguing for basing a helicopter at the medical center, Salness told hospital officials that "it's got to do something for the internal pizazz of the institution."
"It's investing in a concept, really," Salness said. "It's a reflection of what we think the whole darn hospital ought to be doing and can be a highly visible gadget that makes you feel good about the institution."
Nina Merrill, executive director of the Assn. of Hospital-Based Emergency Air Medical Systems, said most of the flying ambulances across the nation are leased by hospitals from private companies, which also provide the pilots.
Memorial Medical Center's two helicopters, for instance, are supplied by Rocky Mountain Helicopter, which also provides eight pilots, most of them Vietnam veterans.
Sulak, who flew the snakebite victim from Catalina, piloted a helicopter for the Army's 101st Airborne Division 20 years ago not far from Hue, scene of one of the fiercest battles in the Vietnam War. In those days, he worried about gunfire from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. These days, his worries are different.
On the snakebite flight, another helicopter was using the primary landing site, Pebbly Beach on Catalina, so Sulak headed for the backup site, the golf course near the small hospital on the island. There was a brief, unexpected delay before landing. "We had to circle so some players on the golf course could play through," Sulak said.
Sulak, a Garden Grove resident as wiry as the frames of his aviator sunglasses, taught helicopter operations to Iranian military students in the days of the shah. Joe Parr, the pilot who brought the 2-month-old baby into the Long Beach hospital and who flew for the Marine Corps in Vietnam, piloted a chopper for a Los Angeles television station before hooking up with Lifeflight.