Vail Valley Medical Center in need of new helipad location

VAIL — Vail residents and Vail Valley Medical Center patients generally agree about the importance of having air ambulance service to the hospital. What that service might look like in the future is where that agreement starts to strain.

The hospital for nearly 30 years has used a still-makeshift helipad just to the west of the building that houses the town’s community development department. The property for the pad belongs to the Federal Highway Administration and the Colorado Department of Transportation. The property was loaned to the town for air ambulance services in 1984 in a “one-year” deal, which the feds and state officials sort of forgot about.

But the future of that landing site came into question when town and medical center officials started talking about redeveloping the town’s property on the north side of South Frontage Road for a project that would have put a new town hall and medical office building on the property. That project would have temporarily moved the helipad to Ford Park, with the possibility of moving the landing site back to the hospital in the future.

The three-way deal between the town, hospital and the The Steadman Clinic and the Steadman Philippon Research Institute fell apart last year when the clinic and research institute pulled out of the project. Medical center officials are planning the future of their space-restricted site.

Part of that planning effort is the future of the medical center’s emergency room. Meadow Drive residents hope that future will move access to the emergency room from Meadow Drive to South Frontage Road. They also hope medical helicopters won’t end up flying over their street and, ultimately, Vail Village.

Concerns about the future of the helipad prompted a meeting at which several members of the hospital staff, as well as Flight for Life, the company that provides air ambulance services to the hospital, talked about the need for emergency flight services.

The doctors and pilots on the panel talked at length about the need for air ambulance services, especially when minutes count in an emergency case. They also talked about the air ambulance industry’s safety record which has improved dramatically over the past 30 years or so.

Dr. Larry Gaul, the medical center’s cardiologist, talked about his initial concerns about the safety of air ambulances. After early experience as a paramedic, Gaul said his attitude for years was that he’d never get in a helicopter ambulance again.

That attitude shifted dramatically several years ago, when Gaul’s son’s life was saved by an air ambulance flight to Denver.

Gaul said victims of serious heart attacks need to be transported to Denver within a couple of hours to have a good chance of survival. That simply isn’t possible in an ambulance, he said.

In contrast, an air ambulance can get a patient to Denver Health Medical Center in just a little more than 30 minutes.

What’s true of heart attack patients is also true of the victims of serious accidents. Trauma surgeon Reg Francois said the current air ambulance system, which requires transporting a patient by ambulance the short distance to the helipad, eats into that valuable time.

Peter Brandes, of Eagle County Paramedic Services, said that transfer time can be 30 minutes or more and increases the chances of mishandled equipment.

Taking a patient to the helipad also takes an ambulance out of service elsewhere, Brandes said.

“Nothing would make me happier than being out of the helicopter transfer business,” Brandes said.

The medical center’s current plans, which are still far from final, call for moving the helipad to the roof of a future building, which would require an elevator, not an ambulance, ride.

Merv Lapin, who has lived on Meadow Drive since the early 1970s, appreciates the need for air ambulance service, but said he’s still unsure about the prospect of a helipad atop a hospital building.

Lapin said he was home one day in 1973 or ‘74 when the noise from an air ambulance blew the windows out of his house. Understanding that aircraft and other technology has changed a lot over the decades, Lapin said he still has doubts.

“My major concern is safety,” Lapin said. “I just don’t know about putting helicopters in a densely populated area.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jun 24, 2013 12:25PM Published Jun 25, 2013 09:44AM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.