Hope is in the Air

HALO-Flight: When a minute can make a difference

By: Stephanie Kusy
Photos by: Paul Marshall and Ned Dawson, HeliOps

A call comes in from dispatch. A young female is in critical condition after being involved in a head-on collision off Highway 181 near Alice. She needs help, and fast. Within minutes, the distinctive sound of helicopter blades spinning becomes increasingly audible.

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A Bell 407 helicopter lands in a nearby field. A critical care nurse and a flight paramedic dressed in blue and yellow suits quickly make their way to the young woman to assess her. In less than 15 minutes, she will arrive at CHRISTUS Spohn Memorial Trauma Center, her doctor anxiously waiting to provide care.

In rural South Texas, the arrival of HALO-Flight can mean the difference between life and death. “In the past, it would take one-and-a-half hours before they’d get into the trauma center from Alice,” says HALO-Flight Executive Director Tom Klassen. “The time we save can be life and death. More importantly, prompt air ambulance care affects post-accident rehabilitation time they may face and how well they will live the rest of their life.”

HALO-Flight provides emergency medical transport for the critically ill or injured throughout South Texas regardless of their ability to pay. Last year, they cared for more than 1,100 patients across 26 counties. Their main base is located off FM 665 in Corpus Christi. In 2012, they added a helicopter base in Alice and then in 2015, a base in Beeville.

“We really looked at the efficiency at how we transported our patients,” Klassen says. “What could we do to make our patient’s experience better? In doing that, we found that 70 percent of our patients would be better served if we put helicopters in rural communities.”

Response time drastically decreased. With an average launch time of just six minutes, air medical transportation arrives shortly after to assist someone requiring critical care. They often fly patients to the CHRISTUS Spohn trauma center, Driscoll Children’s Hospital, Houston and San Antonio.

Since Klassen came on board in 2010, he has strongly emphasized the importance of safety – for patients and for medical crews. All transports are staffed by specially trained medical crews and outfitted with the latest in emergency medical equipment. HALO-Flight currently operates four helicopters including a state-of-the-art Bell 429 helicopter. Each flight is controlled by a dispatcher who keeps track of the helicopter via satellite tracking.

“Basically, that means we can fly through the clouds,” Klassen says. “We’ve created highways in the sky. If we get bad weather, we are better equipped to accommodate some of those flights. With this helicopter, we are going to capture about 35 percent more flights that we traditionally have to turn down because of unsafe weather conditions.”

HALO-Flight has been viewed as the premier provider of helicopter air ambulance services in South Texas for nearly three decades, yet the nonprofit comes from humble beginnings. “It started out as an idea on napkin,” Klassen says. “Back in 1987, there was a handful of guys down in Falfurrias that decided they needed a helicopter because a young lady was injured, and it took two-and-a-half hours for ground transport to get to Corpus Christi.”

The group of concerned citizens pooled their money together and rented a helicopter. All parties volunteered their time, from the medics to the pilots. A couple of years later, they moved to Corpus Christi because they felt the community would be better served centrally based.

Since then, more than 17,000 patients have received lifesaving care by HALO-Flight. About 60 percent of those flights are from the scene of an accident where a ground ambulance would take too long to respond. The rest make up patient transfers from one hospital to another. Transports include people in need of a variety of critical care such as cardiac, respiratory, neurological and burn victims.

As the only nonprofit medical air transport in South Texas, fundraising is a critical component. Each air transport costs around $20,000, and HALO-Flight provides services regardless of a person’s ability to pay. “The reason it is expensive is because you are paying for 24-hour coverage 365 days out of the year for the community,” Klassen says. “The support from the community is paid back by making our operations safe.”

The organization hosts three major fundraisers a year. The Sky High Rollers Casino Night took place in February. The Flint Hills Resources 25th Annual HALO-Flight Flights of Angels Golf Tournament is scheduled for Monday, May 2, 2016 at the Corpus Christi Country Club. And in October, the nonprofit hosts a dove shoot. The organization prides itself on keeping overhead costs down. Ninety percent of donations are directly used within their operations.

“It is important for people to support HALO-Flight because many more people would die during a long ambulance drive versus surviving because of the speed to which the helicopter transports the patient to the hospital,” says Larry Dreier, former Flights of Angels Golf Tournament chair.

HALO-Flight staffs less than 50 people at its three locations. Pilots work on 12-hour rotating shifts as required by FAA regulations. At all times, each base is staffed with a full crew, consisting of a paramedic, a flight nurse and a pilot. The crews are nationally recognized in their profession. Every R.N. and paramedic is nationally certified in critical care medicine, each R.N. is a certified emergency nurse and paramedics are certified as either critical care paramedics or certified flight paramedics.

“We have some long-term employees that believe in our mission and enjoy what they do every single day,” Klassen says. “We are very picky on who we hire because you have to have all these credentials on the medical side. It’s a process to get hired here.”

Klassen has been known to take off his suit and tie to don a jumpsuit and fly a helicopter at times. His first love will always be flying. After graduating high school, he told his parents he wanted to become a pilot.

“My mom was dead set against it,” Klassen recalls. “My dad thought, ‘Gosh he’s been drawing pictures of airplanes since we he was 5; let’s do this.’ So I went to flight school. You’re eating a lot of ramen and spam in the beginning. I had the opportunity though to do the thing I’m most passionate about, and I thank God that I got to do that.”

Klassen went to flight school and started flying a spotting helicopter off of a Mexican tuna fishing boat in Central America at age 19. He has lived and worked in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Thailand, Russia, Eastern Europe and all over the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, but he has found a home here in Corpus Christi.

With more than 10,000 hours of flight time, Klassen feels that the 18 years spent transporting patients in helicopters has been the most rewarding. He and the staff at HALO-Flight hope to continue to serve people in South Texas for years to come.

For more information on HALO-Flight, visit www.haloflight.org.

Community Celebration
The 25th Annual Flights of Angels Golf Tournament

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This year marks a quarter-of-a-century-milestone for HALO-Flight with the 25th Annual Flights of Angels Golf Tournament presented by Flint Hills Resources on Monday, May 2, at the Corpus Christi Country Club.

A community celebration of HALO-Flight’s service to the South Texas communities in 26 counties, the golf tournament raises funds for the nonprofit helicopter air ambulance service to help ensure that when minutes count, HALO-Flight is there.

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This year’s tournament will feature two flights of golf and a four-member team format. The best-ball scramble will have shotgun starts at 7:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

“Part of the Flights of Angels tournament tradition is the links cuisine,” said Jane Dare Haas, HALO-Flight marketing director. “This year, we are thrilled to have seven of the best vendors preparing food for the golfers. And the vendor garnering the most votes wins the coveted traveling trophy.”

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All participating teams will receive a cache of welcome gifts, as well as contest and competition prizes including Hole-In-One, Longest Drive, Yeti Chip, Speed Round, 12 random drawings for $200 in golf prizes and other competitive fun-time activities. Awards for both flights will follow play.

Golf team registration is online at HALO-Flight.org. Sponsors wishing to show their support for the lifesaving mission of HALO-Flight can do so at www.haloflight.org/explore.

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