Two days ago, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ jet touched down on the runway at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas. She had been transported from Tucson to Houston for her rehabilitation via an air ambulance. A news media frenzy followed the countdown to her take-off to her safe, uneventful landing. For some individuals, this was the first time hearing the term “air ambulance.”
Immediately, online news outlets, television networks, and newspaper pages across the country lit up with gleaming-but-true descriptions of high-tech “flying intensive care units.”
“It may look like an ordinary Lear jet, but this aircraft is anything but ordinary,” came the words from Som Lisaius, a reporter for KOLD News 13 in Phoenix, Arizona, in a story titled “ICU at 6000 feet.”
News stations across the country contacted local air ambulance companies to explain the capabilities of the aircraft. KOLD interviewed Scott Miller, a flight nurse at an air ambulance company with operations in Phoenix.
“Anything that can be done in an ICU with most hospitals,” he began, “we can actually perform and continue that care upon our jet… so it makes a seamless care between transferring between facilities.”
Another story from KGUN9-TV in Tucson, entitled “A Look Inside an Air Ambulance,” included an interview with the president of an air ambulance company. Answering reporter Jennifer Waddell’s questions, he re-iterated the truthful, if somewhat simplified analogy that “air ambulances are essentially flying ICU’s.”
Hours earlier, yet another story contained this description of Congresswoman Giffords’ ambulance: “a Challenger aircraft, also known as an air ambulance. It’s equipped like a mini-medical facility.”
Most of the media reports mentioned major benefits of air ambulance transportation over traditional flights being the ability for the pilots to control altitude and pressure for the patient based on their injury, and the ability to monitor recently injured patients for factors such as inter-cranial bleeding.
Other reports described air ambulances as advanced medical facilities, with room to comfortably carry family members with the patients. Almost all reports defined air ambulances as high-tech, twin-engine jets that are capable of providing intensive care on the way to the hospital.
Some reporters, unfamiliar with medical aircraft, stated sometimes-truths probably based on incomplete information — such as that air ambulances always fly at lower altitudes than other planes, and that cabin pressure is different in air ambulances than in other planes. While this can be true, these are important decisions made by pilots and medical flight crews based on patient and other factors, and are not true in every situation based solely on the classification of the aircraft as an air ambulance.
Following her two-hour flight on the medical jet, Congresswoman Giffords’ trip also included transportation by medical helicopter from William P. Hobby Airport to Memorial Hermann Hospital’s trauma center, where she will be evaluated before her therapy begins at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) within the same hospital system.