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Virginia hospital gets a lift with new helipad

VIRGINIA -- Beginning this week, patients who are emergency airlifted to and from the Virginia Regional Medical Center won't have to take a side trip to the city's golf course.

VIRGINIA -- Beginning this week, patients who are emergency airlifted to and from the Virginia Regional Medical Center won't have to take a side trip to the city's golf course.

The hospital's new $2 million helipad located on the roof of the four-story building is now ready to be used, said hospital CEO Keith Harvey, and it should mean a much quicker transition time for patients who need more medical help than the Virginia hospital can provide.

Now that a set of elevators has been remodeled to reach a new fifth-floor landing, emergency crews will be able to transport patients quickly from the first-floor emergency room to the roof-access helipad.

"I think it decreases risk to patients; it decreases the time they are out of a physician's control," said Dr. Wendell Smith, a surgeon with the Duluth Clinic-Virginia, and also the president of the Virginia Hospital Commission. While air ambulances generally are staffed with a flight paramedic and a nurse, the patient's physician is responsible for their health until they come under the care of another physician, Smith said.

Between 50 and 75 patients are transferred from the Virginia hospital each year, Harvey said, usually to St. Mary's or St. Luke's hospitals in Duluth but sometimes to Twin Cities-area hospitals. The Virginia hospital has long used air ambulance services, but the helicopter landing areas haven't always been ideal.

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The helicopters first landed in the hospital parking lot, then in a packed-dirt parking lot next to nearby Silver Lake, and later in a particularly grim location -- a cemetery near the hospital. The most recent landing pad was several minutes' drive away near the city's golf course.

That meant that every patient who needed an air ambulance also had to be transported to the landing pad in a ground ambulance. And that meant summoning the ambulance crew, loading the patient, driving the mile or so to the golf course, unloading the patient and transferring them into the helicopter. The entire process could take an extra 15 to 20 minutes, time that was often crucial during cardiac and trauma cases, said Terry Stachovich, a flight paramedic with St. Luke's air ambulance, Luke's One.

"When you consider that a flight from Virginia to Duluth takes 30 minutes, you're halfway to Duluth by the time you make that move," Stachovich said.

Building the helipad wasn't as simple as painting a big "H" on the roof of the hospital. The building's existing steel beams were strong enough to support the additional weight, but the elevator renovations and other construction were expensive. The hospital received a $600,000 grant from the state Legislature for the project and a $250,000 grant from Iron Range Resources as well as $150,000 raised by the community, Harvey said. The city-owned hospital bonded for the remaining $1 million.

The Virginia hospital employs about 550 people, with a $23 million payroll and a $50 million expense budget, Harvey said.

During a recent Hospital Commission meeting, members voted to repeat a request for supplemental funding from both St. Mary's and St. Luke's hospitals. The commission is seeking $300,000 toward the cost of the completed project from St. Mary's, and $100,000 from St. Luke's, said Commissioner Pat Grahek.

The Duluth hospitals have not responded, Grahek said.

Part of the reasoning behind the request is that the two hospitals "are beneficiaries, in a sense," Grahek said. "They get [to treat] the folks we are sending to them."

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Particularly from SMDC Health System, a contribution would be a gesture of goodwill, he said. That's what Virginia residents demonstrated when the city agreed to bond for about $16 million to help pay for SMDC's new Duluth Clinic-Virginia next to the hospital.

Regardless of whether any other hospital contributes, "it's a good investment for us to make," Grahek said. "I would have voted for it whether they contributed to it or not."

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