Helicopter ambulance housed at McAllen Medical Center

Pilot Chris Kane stands next to to an air ambulance helicopter on air med helo pad as the announce the teaming up of South Texas Health Systems and South Texas Air on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — Air ambulance services are back at McAllen Medical Center, hospital officials announced Tuesday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the occasion.

The inside of a air ambulance helicopter is displayed on air med helo pad during an announcement of the teaming up of South Texas Health Systems and South Texas Air on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

South Texas Health System McAllen and South Texas Air Med teamed up to expand critical care in the Rio Grande Valley by once again housing a helicopter at the site. Hidalgo County EMS, a privately owned ambulance company, owns the rotor aircraft that will be housed there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“This past February, Air Evac (Lifeteam) gave notice to the Valley that they were leaving,” Hidalgo County EMS owner and President Kenneth “Kenny” Ponce said about the region’s former helicopter ambulance provider.

Air Evac’s departure left the region without the much-needed medical component. So Hidalgo County EMS, which already owned fixed wing aircraft to transport patients in and out of the area, decided to add the rotor aircraft to its inventory.

Unlike fixed wing aircraft, which are typically used to fly out patients on longer distances, a rotor aircraft can be easily dispatched to the scene of an accident or other medical emergency.

“This is the only helicopter located in the Rio Grande Valley, and we’re so excited about having them here on the campus of McAllen Medical Center,” Doug Colburn, the hospital’s chief operating officer, said.

Louis Corbeil, flight director for air operations at AirMed 1, said the Bell 407, which was formerly housed at the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg, is one of the most dependable rotor aircrafts and a favorite among the air ambulance industry.

A warning sign is displayed near an air ambulance helicopter on air med helo pad during an announcement of the teaming up of South Texas Health Systems and South Texas Air on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The one Hidalgo County EMS owns is equipped with autopilot, a safety feature that is not always included in such aircraft. And having that function in the Rio Grande Valley, where humidity is high, is essential to safety, Corbeil said.

“If we run into some weather, (the pilot) hits a little button and we get up above the (cloud) ceiling, and we can fly directly to an airport and do an approach,” he said about the autopilot function. “Of course, back in the day, that was not available, and there were a lot more helicopter crashes because of that.”

In fact, there were two such crashes within the last 10 years in the Rio Grande Valley, he said, adding he lost a good friend in one of those collisions.

“You get a lot of fog because of the humidity coming in from the Gulf,” Corbeil said. “Unfortunately, it’s something that we have to deal with for this area, but that’s what makes the autopilot so much more important for us.”

The medical providers hope to add one more life-saving component to the aircraft in the near future: blood.

An air ambulance helicopter is displayed on air med helo pad during an announcement of the teaming up of South Texas Health Systems and South Texas Air on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“For us, on our side, basically the blood products are really, really important,” Corbeil said.

The plan is to carry two units of whole blood, plus Tranexamic acid, which helps with the clotting factor.

“You could be bleeding out and the only thing that’s going to help you is either a tourniquet or the OR (operating room),” he said. “But if you have blood to bring to the scene, that can make a world of a difference.”

And that’s what having a helicopter is all about, Colburn said.

“A helicopter is not just about transport to McAllen Medical Center or other area hospitals,” he said. “It’s about getting that advanced team out to an accident or a scene and get the care that the patient needs there faster.”

The helicopter will transport patients to any location that has a helipad.

“So it’s not exclusive to us, but it’ll be based here and most of the patients that are trauma related will come here,” Colburn said.

Most of the major local hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley have a helicopter transport landing zone or helipad.