BLOOMINGTON — When a patient is experiencing a traumatic injury in Central Illinois, sometimes waiting for and taking an ambulance ride to a local hospital isn't an option.
Good thing OSF HealthCare has a Life Flight helicopter.
That air ambulance and a team of four pilots, 10 flight nurses and paramedics and two mechanics will now be based 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Bloomington, from a hangar at the Central Illinois Regional Airport, officials announced Thursday.
"Having the helicopter here permanently really means that we're able to get to patients faster and then get them to the hospital faster so that they can receive the care that they need," said Lynn Fulton, president of OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington.
The Life Flight helicopter — an American Eurocopter EC 145 — and its crew have been servicing St. Joseph since 2018, on a 12-hour, seven-day rotation with OSF HealthCare Saint James-John W. Albrecht Medical Center in Pontiac.
It is one of four Life Flight helicopters operated by OSF across Illinois. The other three helicopters are based 24/7 in Peoria, Peru and Rockford, respectively.
Fulton said the move to station the fourth helicopter permanently in Bloomington is in response to St. Joseph serving as hub for OSF's eastern region.
"A lot of the patients that we're bringing in on the helicopter are coming to St. Joseph hospital in Bloomington," Fulton said, estimating that figure at 95%. "Therefore, it makes sense to have the helicopter here because we're bringing them here to this area."
The remaining 5% of patients who take a Bloomington Life Flight helicopter ride are mostly transfers to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Fulton said.
What's more, having the helicopter based in the Twin Cities means it can service OSF's campuses in Urbana and Danville, Fulton said.
"It really provides that greater access to care," Fulton said. "We're able to bring patients who are very sick from a wider distance and provide them services here."
That access was on display Thursday morning before a blessing ceremony at the hangar, when crews received a dispatch and within minutes mobilized to launch the helicopter.
A typical flight is 60 to 65 miles one way, with a response time of 20 to 25 minutes, but those figures vary widely because of weather conditions and patient locations, said Kathy Devine, vice president of OSF Aviation.
Together, the four OSF Life Flight helicopters complete about 1,800 flights each year, Devine said. Patients ride to receive care for heart attacks, strokes and other trauma cases.
That many flights does come at a cost, Fulton said, pointing to the high price of fuel and consistent maintenance.
"So it is an investment," Fulton said. "But we see it as more of a gift and an investment in the community and their health and well-being by having (the helicopter) here."
CIRA executive director Carl Olson agrees.
"The addition of OSF's flight department to Bloomington-Normal on a permanent basis based here at CIRA is huge, not so much for the airport, which they are a welcome addition to, but for the community," Olson said.
"To have that immediate level of care opportunity to respond — it is a tremendous asset and benefit for the community," Olson said. "The airport is just glad to be a part of it."
Contact Timothy Eggert at (309) 820-3276. Follow him on Twitter: @TimothyMEggert