EDITORIAL: Needed access: Air ambulance service a vital Valley resource

From left: Paul M. Vazaldua Jr., vice president of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs for Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med; state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; David de Los Santos, EMT-P, Business Development Manager, Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med; and Shawn Snider, fire chief, city of Edinburg. This portrait was taken on Thursday, Feb. 14, during an event hosted by the Edinburg Mayor and Edinburg City Council at Edinburg City Hall to congratulate Canales for his recent appointment as Chair of the House Committee on Transportation. (Photo by Mark Montemayor)

Many Rio Grande Valley drivers think little of zipping along the highway from Brownsville to a concert in Hidalgo, from Mission to South Padre Island, or any locations in between. We might never give a thought to the special challenges emergency vehicles might face.

Valley roadways aren’t always the best or fastest way to get an injured person to a hospital. In addition, specialized facilities such as burn centers aren’t available in the Valley, and many victims must be sent so San Antonio, Houston or as far away as Fort Worth for certain treatment.

So we welcome news that Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med has secured a three-year lease for an air ambulance to serve the area. The aircraft, which should be in use within three months, will augment two airplanes the service already uses.

The announcement comes just a month after the previous air ambulance service, Missouri-based Air Evac Lifeteam, ceased operations in the Valley.

Air ambulance services are certainly needed in South Texas. They have helped save many lives in the past.

Transporting severely injured patients to other areas, or delivering life-saving organs to transplant patients, is only one aspect of a helicopter’s value, but it’s a crucial one. While local medical facilities are growing and modernizing, this region still lacks the specialized doctors and facilities needed to provide some vital treatments. Tier 1 medical centers — the top of the line in access and quality of services — are few and far between, and none currently exist in the Valley. The closest such center is hundreds of miles away.

Local medical professionals are working to upgrade and expand capabilities to one day have a Tier 1 center here, but until that is achieved some Valley patients might still need to be airlifted to other regions. Even after the Valley reaches Tier 1 access, an air ambulance might be needed to bring patients here from more remote areas.

Many of those remote areas aren’t that far away. Injury or illness can befall someone anywhere in the wild brush land north or west of the more populated parts of the Valley — or even South Padre Island, where the often-congested Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge is the only way to get to and off the island by land. Traditional ambulance service can be impractical when the causeway is clogged, making air ambulance service all the more important.

It appears Air Med’s helicopter won’t arrive in time to be available for Spring Break, and even if it were we’d certainly hope that it wouldn’t be needed. That’s an eternal prayer. But like every precaution, its availability, just in case, gives us reason to rest just a bit easier.