Wings of mercy

March 28, 1995

Whether it's a 12-car pile-up on the Baltimore Beltway, a gas explosion in Westminster or a heart attack victim in Western Maryland, the arrival of a state medevac emergency rescue helicopter often has meant the difference between life and death for thousands of seriously injured or ill people.

Last week the airborne angels of mercy, which have made Maryland a model for similar services around the country, celebrated their 25th anniversary in a memorable ceremony that provided a fitting tribute to a job well done. Maryland's medevac program has become a nationally recognized model for emergency helicopter rescue services.

The medevac program began as the brainchild of Dr. R Adams Cowley, the founder and first director of the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. Dr. Cowley believed many trauma victims could be saved if they got intensive medical attention soon after sustaining their injuries. His method stressed that the best chance of helping accident victims and seriously ill people was to begin treating them in that first "golden hour."

Medevac helicopters transported 197 patients in 1970, the year the program started. In 1994, the number had grown to 4,179, a 20-fold increase. During its 25 years of operation the program has transported more than 62,000 patients, with a survival rate of more than 90 percent. Today the service boasts 11 state-of-the-art $5.1 million helicopters stationed at eight bases throughout Maryland and staffed by 44 flight paramedics and 56 pilots.

As in the past, no patient receives a bill for transport. About 67 percent of the program's $15 million annual budget comes from an $8 fee paid as part of Maryland residents' car registrations. The rest comes from the state's general fund.

And although the main mission of the medevac program is flying critically injured or ill patients to trauma centers, the helicopters also search for suspected criminals or missing persons, rescue boaters and mountaineers, and aid in other aspects of law enforcement.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the keynote speaker at last week's ceremony, summed up the importance of the medevac program: "We boast an unmatched record of saving lives," she told the gathering of law enforcement officials from throughout the state and the East Coast. "What we have started in Maryland has received worldwide recognition and accolades."

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