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Lifestar – Flying for Time
Lifestar Crew: Jeff Clifton, Natham Westerling, and Gerald Ramsey
Lifestar crew Jeff Clifton, Nathan Westerling, and Gerald Ramsey is one of the crews that can fly lifesaving aid whenever it’s needed in Effingham and surrounding counties. (Photos by Rick Lott/Effingham Herald.)

By Rick Lott

When injury or illness is severe and time is of the essence, a Lifestar helicopter is called to deliver life-saving assistance and transport to the nearest qualified hospital.

Lifestar service by Air Methods has been a vital part of the Effingham County lifesaving network since 1985 and has covered Effingham, Bulloch, Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, Beaufort and Jasper counties. To make their service even better, they have opened a sister-base in Hinesville last year that has added Allendale, Evans, Glenn, Hampton, Long, McIntosh, Tattnall, Wayne counties to their coverage area.

Jeff Clifton, flight paramedic, said ‘typical’ calls are to assist with strokes, car wrecks, gunshot wounds, heart attacks, etc. Calls may also be for ICU transfer to another hospital or to a specialist. He said a lot of rural hospitals aren’t able to care for really sick patients. Lifestar goes into action when paramedics arrive on a scene and see that a patient is severely injured, they get called. The Lifestar team has the ability to give blood, administer anesthesia if necessary, or help the patient breathe with a surgical airway. Lifestar’s ability to fly a patient to critical care is a key benefit, as they don’t get bogged down in highway traffic congestion.

When a call comes in through their dispatch, a team of three -- a pilot, flight nurse and a flight paramedic -- boards their helicopter and flies off to the emergency site. Once there, they work alongside other first responders, whether law enforcement, fire, or EMS. Clifton said half of their crews do 24-72's and some of the crews do one 24-hour-shift on, one 24-hour-shift off, one 24-on and then five days off.  To be a team member, you must have four years of experience and once hired you start getting more critical care training.

Clifton said, "The ground-based first responders can start IV’s so when Lifestar gets there, an IV’s already started, they’re already on a backboard, immobilized, so we take it from there.” A standard ground EMS unit is capable of advanced life support or ALS.  When a patient presents with injuries above ALS capabilities, helicopters are utilized because they provide advanced trauma and critical-care services that the standard ground unit does not have.

When a team comes to work, they arrive with the anticipation that it's going to be somebody's worst day and it's their job to come in and make it as easy and better as possible. Clifton said that with children, things are tougher to deal with emotionally – even more so if you also have children of your own. He recalled the nurses’ wreck on Interstate 16 several years ago and said as soon as he returned home he called his daughter who was in college at that time, and said she ought to skip school that day and wrap herself in bubble-wrap! He said things like that, “make it real for you.”

Lifestar Helicopter in flight
Lifestar helicopter lifts off in response to a call. (Rick Lott/Effingham Herald.)
Lifestar began in 1985 as part of the Memorial Health System in Savannah. Today the vital lifeline is based in Effingham County on the Effingham Health campus in Springfield. About 13 years ago the service moved its base to Effingham. The number of calls per month varies but can be as high as 35 to 55. Clifton said the highest number they have flown is in the middle to high 50's. The Effingham base has teams that include a pilot, a medic and a nurse. The team of 13 full-time members work two 24-hour shifts which effectively has them working 48-hour weeks. There are also two part-time team members and pilots work 12-hour shifts in seven-day stretches.

Clifton said their aircraft is one of the fastest, with the most lift capability in the immediate area. He also emphasized they don't offer memberships as some services do. He said the common cost for their services is around $206.

Clifton also had good things to say of the Effingham Health System who they partner with locally. He said, "We have a fantastic relationship with them. They're fantastic providers and we work very well with them." He said sometimes Effingham EMS will just bring their patients right to them. Clifton said their two offices even have a Thanksgiving dinner together.

The local teams are activated by a call from their dispatch center based on Omaha, Nebraska. Once local ambulance, fire, police, and Lifestar are called to respond to an emergency situation, their Omaha dispatcher puts the call in to the Effingham office which takes about two or three seconds. It only takes about seven minutes from the time a call comes in for the team to lift off the pad heading for the scene.