AirCare celebrates 35 years


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For 35 years, AirCare has flown the skies, providing Iowa City and the surrounding area with fast, high quality medical service.

Founded in 1979, AirCare is celebrating its 35th anniversary as the oldest helicopter ambulance service in the state and the 11th oldest in the nation.

“It was right around the time of the Vietnam War when people started using helicopters to evacuate patients a lot, and they found that it was very successful,” said Joshua Stiley, UI Assistant Clinical Professor and medical director of AirCare. “People brought that back from the Vietnam War and said ‘We need civilian flight programs.’ ”

The anniversary will be recognized with an open house on Sept. 7 at the AirCare hanger near the Iowa City Airport, which includes tours of the two AirCare helicopters, historic AirCare photo and equipment displays, former and current flight crew members, and light refreshments.

Although the actual anniversary was in April, the open house was delayed in order to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the UI Department of Emergency Medicine becoming an official department.

Today, cities with a helicopter ambulance program include Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, and Des Moines, among others.

There have been a lot of changes to AirCare since its start, including the purchase of a second helicopter, AirCare2, in 1988. AirCare 2 is based in Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo and has expanded the program’s coverage area to 180 miles.

Other significant changes include greater safety, said Diane Lamb, the AirCare nurse manager.

The technology and approach toward care have also changed since 1979. When they first started, Stilley said, the program had a much smaller helicopter as the focus was simply getting the patient to the hospital. It wasn’t until later on when they discovered treatment during flight is also very important.

Stilley said the level of care provided in the helicopters rivals that of most ground EMS units because in addition to a wider supply of drugs and treatments, the helicopters also fly with a nurse and paramedic who have ICU experience, something most ground ambulances don’t have.

Providing quality care in a helicopter can be challenging, AirCare flight nurse Missy Kiger said.

“On top of taking care of some of the sickest patients, you’re also then doing it in an atmosphere that can be dangerous,” she said. “You’re not in a stable environment, [so] you’re dealing with the elements outside, so if it’s really cold, the heat, the vibration, the wind.”

Kiger said it’s hard to pick a favorite AirCare memory because they’re all unique.

“I think that’s what’s nice about it. You come in every day and it’s something different,” she said. “We see just about every medical trauma — every age, every size, every medical diagnosis you can think of. And we see parts of it or things that happen to people that are traumatic, but it’s always different.”

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