Public Service

Flashback to 1967: Visiting Hughes 500 Adds Speed to Premature Baby Delivery Program

By S.L. Fuller | May 15, 2017
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This photo originally appeared in the September 1967 issue of R&WI.

This photo originally appeared in the September 1967 issue of R&WI.

This article was originally published in the September 1967 issue of R&WI and has been edited to comply with current grammar and style guidelines. Look for our special 50th anniversary edition of the magazine in June 2017, where we'll celebrate the past 50 years — and look ahead to the next 50 years — of rotorcraft innovations.

Sister M. Andre, O.S.F., delivers more babies in a year than many doctors — but not in the delivery room.

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She makes her “deliveries” by ambulance, picking up newborn infants from hospitals all over the northern half of Illinois and taking them to the premature center, which she heads, at St. Francis Hospital in Peoria.

Last year, making these pickups, Sister Andre and her nurses traveled the equivalent of nearly twice around the earth and spent as many hours on the road as a nurse would work in six months at the hospital. (The actual totals: 45,312 miles and 1,027 hours.)

Which is why the young Franciscan nun has become an avid fan of the helicopter.

In an effort to improve the delivery service, get the babies to the center more quickly and cut down on the time that she and her nurses spend traveling, Andre last winter devised a helicopter pickup service, which has already proved practical. Babies as small as 2 and 3 pounds are becoming air-travel veterans when they are only five or six hours old.

Andre and the hospital administrators currently are negotiating with the state of Illinois Bureau of Maternal and Child Health to make the airlift service permanent. The outlook is optimistic. Dr. James Paulissen, pediatric consultant to the bureau, has praised the service, calling it “another effort to improve our methods of saving the lives of infants.”

In the experimental phase of what is believed to be the first use of helicopters to transport premature babies, Andre delivered five infants safely and quickly to her ward.

Four of the trips were made in a Hughes 300, a three-seat, piston-engine helicopter owned by the Peoria Journal Star, which helped Andre develop the service and donated the use of its copter for the trial flights.

The fifth — and most pleasant for Andre — was in a Hughes 500, the new five-passenger, turbine-engine machine, which cruises at 150 mph. It was pressed into service one day last winter when it was in Peoria on a demonstration flight.

It was so much nicer,” Andre recalled. “I just put the incubator on the back seat and rode back with so much more room and comfort. The trip would have taken over an hour by ambulance, but we made it in 20 minutes.”

That was on March 27, when Andre got a phone call from the hospital in Fairbury, Illinois, about 60 miles east of Peoria.

Ronnie Winebrinner of nearby Anchor, Illinois, had given birth prematurely to a girl weighing less than four pounds. The child was not ill, but needed the specialized care that all premature infants should have as they try to make their way into life with the handicap of arriving too soon.

When the call came in, Andre phoned Joe Cordrey, Journal Star pilot and Midwestern field editor for Rotor & Wing. He was in conversation at the time with Hal Hawkins, demonstration pilot for the Aircraft Division of the Hughes Tool Co., who had just flown the Hughes 500 onto the Journal Star’s rooftop heliplex.

Taking advantage of the presence of the 500, the two pilots put Andre aboard with her portable incubator, flew off to Fairbury, picked up the infant and returned to Peoria — all in just slightly over an hour. When little Carol Winebrinner reached the premature center she weighed three pounds, 14 ounces. Two-and-a-half weeks later, when she was able to go home, she was up to four pounds, 14 ounces.

“That was very good progress,” said Andre, who has been supervisor of the premature center since March 1966. “I can’t explain it, but all of the babies we delivered by helicopter went home in better-than-average time.”

The one exception was a three-pound youngster who had a lung malformation at birth and died a week after being transferred to St. Francis by copter. The flight had no adverse effect on his health, Andre said. In fact, getting such a baby to the center as quickly as possible is one of the purposes of the helicopter system, but occasionally — as in this case — even expert medical assistance cannot save a baby.

This child, the son of Mr. and Mrs. William Petkovsek of Zion, Illinois, had established two records. He was the first baby transported by copter, and his was the longest of any of the flights that have been made.

Zion, where he was born, is in the far northeast corner of Illinois, on Lake Michigan at the Wisconsin border. About 160 miles from Peoria, it is the farthest point in the district from the state-supported premature center at St. Fancis Hospital.

An ambulance ride from Peoria to Zion and back again is an all-day job, a full eight-hour trip. The Hughes 300, even with stops for refueling along the way, made it in 5.5 hours. The Hughes 500 could have done it in three or less.

The 500 is the civilian version of the Army’s new light observation helicopter. Touted mostly in the civilian market as an executive transport, it also has many utility applications. According to the Hughes company, it is “man’s dream of a flying auto- mobile.” “Door-to-door transportation three or four times as fast as a car for ranges of more than 500 miles in complete comfort without frustrations is now available in a vehicle requiring less maintenance per mile than the car at about the same fuel cost.”

With its Allison Turbine engine, the Hughes cruises at speeds up to 150 mph. Useful loads of up to 1,400 pounds at the 2,400 pound design gross certification weight and up to 1,700 pounds at the 2,700 pound overload gross weight can be carried. Engine critical altitude is over 6,000 feet.

As one of three downstate Illinois premature centers supported by the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health, the St. Francis center gets babies from an area larger than either of the other two. Its district extends from 30 to 40 miles south of Peoria to the Wisconsin border and from Iowa to Indiana, excluding only Cook County, which has its own centers in Chicago.

That gives St. Francis an area of responsibility totaling about 20,000 square miles. Regulations for transporting babies require that a registered nurse from the premature center must go to the hospital where the baby was born and travel back with it to Peoria.

Here are the principal reasons which Andre believes make the helicopter superior to the ambulance for her purpose:

1. The shorter time that it takes to get the baby into the hands of the expert nurses and doctors, with their specialized equipment, at the premature center.

This is perhaps the most important reason. Nurses and doctors at many small, outlying hospitals simply have not had the training and experience to deal properly with the many problems that can develop with babies who weigh 5 pounds or less. (St. Francis has had one, which weighed 1 pound, five ounces and survived, and usually has at least one weighing under 2 pounds.)

The sooner that expert care can begin — such as intravenous feeding of the tiny infants, which many require — the better for the child’s chances of survival.

2. The shorter time that the child must spend en route, from hospital to hospital. Andre, who has made many ambulance trips herself, puts it this way:

“You realize when you’re riding along for 3 or 4 hours in the back of the ambulance that you’re solely responsible for that little baby’s life.

“If any problem develops — and many of these babies are not healthy — there’s no pediatrician you can call in. Even if you were to stop along the way and ask a doctor for help, the chances are that he wouldn’t know enough about premature babies to be of much help.”

3. The smoother ride in a helicopter. “Believe me,” Andre said, “a baby feels it when he’s been bounced around for several hours on some of our highways at high speed in an ambulance. It’s hard on the nurse, to, but think of how hard it is on a 3-pound baby!”

4. The smaller amount of time lost from her job at the center by a nurse who makes a trip by helicopter.

When possible, the center will get an off-duty nurse — at axtra pay — to make an out-of-town pickup. But this is frequently impractical, and then one of the nurses on duty must be pulled off her job and sent. Or Andre must go herself. Either way, the premature center — which has 30 to 40 babies every day to take care of — is short-staffed for the time involved.

5. The safety to nurse and baby in a helicopter trip. Andre believes that the danger of traffic accidents, especially when roads are snow-packed and slipper during an Illinois winter, is considerably greater than any risk involved in a copter flight.

No doubt many refinements will be made in the next few years in the methods used to operate an airlift for these infant travellers. So far, however, the technique has been remarkably simple.

Andrew and Cordrey, working together, devised a metal bracket, which they had made and bolted to the seat of the Hughes 300. The incubator is placed in it, and straps then fit over the incubator to hold it securely.

Tw other services are provided for the baby: warmth and oxygen. The portable incubator used by Andre is equipped with an electrical heating element, which operates by plugging it into the cigarette lighter outlet in the ambulance. It plugs into the cigarette lighter outlet in the helicopter just as easily. Oxygen is provided from a small cylinder connected to the incubator by a tube, with a valve controlling the flow, the same method used in an ambulance.

In the Hughes 500, a five-passenger ship, Andre was able to sit beside her premature infant passenger in the back seat, allowing her much more freedom of movement in caring for the baby in flight. The lower noise level allowed her to converse with the pilot without the use of an intercom system. She also reported satisfaction with a marked decrease in vibration experienced in smaller machines.

Paulissen, the state’s pediatric consultant, has said of the helicopter service:

“Surface transportation is often hampered by heavy traffic, bad road conditions, or both. It is often vital to get a premature to a center as quickly — and safely — as possible. Although the costs of transport may be somewhat higher, the speed, smoothness of the ride and easy accessibility provided by a helicopter are all great advantages we can’t overlook. The well-being of the infant is our prime concern.”

A state-supported premature center, like the one at St. Francis, will provide care without any cost to the baby’s parents if they cannot afford it. Present policy provides for the state to pay the full cost of the traveling nurse and the ambulance service for all patents, and to share the coast of the baby’s stay in the premature center with the parents, according to their ability to pay.

Andre has hopes that further experience with the airlift will make its cost virtually the same as that of an ambulance.

“We think,” she said, “that while you will have to pay more to the pilot you ill pay less to the nurse and that it might wind up costing the same. We are now in discussions with a commercial helicopter operator, who tells us that the more flights we can guarantee him the lower the cost will be for each one.”

If Andre has her way, a helicopter would be used whenever the trip would take more than half-an-hour by ambulance. Others involved in the program have suggested, she said, that the cut-off point be a 1-hour ambulance trip.

However the program develops in the future, Andre is convinced that it is here to stay. She had never set foot in a helicopter until she made the fist test flight of the airlift. “I just love it now,” she said. “But that’s not important. My sole reason for wanting the program is to get off the highways and get the baby back to the hospital in the shortest possible time.”

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