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Lifestar key link in network of first responders
Lora Williams (from left), Jake Miller and Jeff Kuehn make up one of the Lifestar teams in Effingham County. Lifestar has 13 full-time members that rotate 24-hour shifts. - photo by Rick Lott

SPRINGFIELD — When someone’s life is ticking away due to injuries sustained in a traffic accident, a heart attack or other trauma, Lifestar helicopter service is there to transport them to a hospital while giving lifesaving care on the way.

Tucked beside the Effingham Health System complex in Springfield, Lifestar is a small but vital piece of the local first responder network. In addition to being able to get to an accident scene and then to a hospital quickly, it provides what amounts to a mobile emergency room. It is able to perform emergency room duties on the scene and do intervention prior to transport.

Lifestar’s aircraft is one of the fastest, with the most lift capability, in the immediate area. It covers Effingham County, Jasper County, Beaufort County, Chatham County, Bryan County and Liberty County. 

Lifestar is activated by a call from its dispatch center based in Omaha, Nebraska. Its normal time between the call and liftoff is seven minutes.

Flight Nurse Lora Williams said when a Lifestar team arrives on the scene, the patient has usually been stabilized by an EMS crew and they assist them to a higher level of care, whether they’re intubated, unconscious, need help breathing or need blood products. She said Lifestar carries two units each of red blood cells and plasma.

Lifestar members must have four years’ experience and then are given additional critical care training.

When a call comes in through its dispatch system, a team of three — a pilot, flight nurse and a flight paramedic — boards a helicopter and flies to the emergency site. 

Standard ground EMS units are 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.

Williams said the really tough calls are ones where the team knows the prospects for patient survival are bleak regardless of what it does. She added that it is imperative, however, that the patient get to a hospital where additional care can be given or at least families can be present.

Although traffic crashes make a up large portion of Lifestar calls, strokes and heart attacks are prominent, too. She said we are in “trauma season” where many people are on the road travelling, which leads to more highway accidents.

“One difficult case recently was having to fly a baby to a hospital in Atlanta for a liver transplant,” pilot Jake Miller said.

Fortunately for the baby, an organ was waiting on the patient. Usually, the flight crew never knows the outcome of their cases. 

Tough days are what crews expect when they come to work. They know it’s going to be somebody’s worst day and it’s their job to make that as easy as possible for the patient and family.

For crew members one way they learn to deal with unimaginable trauma on a daily basis is to forget about it and go on to the next one.

Lifestar began about 36 years ago as part of the Memorial Health System in Savannah. About 12 or 13 years ago, the service moved its base to Effingham County.

The number of calls per month varies but can be as high as 35 to 45. Williams said the highest number they have flown is in the middle to high 50s. 

Lifestar’s 13 full-time members rotate working 24-hour shifts, which effectively has them working the equivalent of two weeks in one. Pilots work shifts of 12-14 hours and must have at least 2,000 hours of EMS or Lifestar flying time.

Lifestar is in a network with many of the area’s insurance companies. The common cost for their services is $236.

Lifestar praised the Effingham Health System, which it partners with locally. It said have a fantastic relationship.