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Medical Ambulances In The Sky, Saving Lives One Flight At A Time

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While Gainesville locals lie asleep, aircraft from University Air Center may be flying in the night sky over their house on the way to save a life.

Timing is crucial whenever a human organ becomes available following a recent death. And regardless of the hour, flights transport medical teams affiliated with University Air Center are on stand-by to receive the harvested organ and fly it back for transplant.

The air center may look like a hidden neighbor at the end of the cul-de-sac, located on 4701 NE 40th Terrace, north of the Gainesville Regional Airport. But the plain building and surrounding aircraft are part of a vital network connecting hospitals and health centers across the southeast United States.

In addition to providing all of the transplant teams for UF Health and the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Debbie Frederick, chief operating officer at UAC, said the center also transfers patients as air ambulances and supplies blood centers.

John Rimes, a senior captain pilot, carries his uniform in his car because he never knows when that unexpected phone call will come — day or late-night.

Rimes has been working at UAC for three years and said it has been a rewarding experience helping people in need.

Traveling to Dallas, Birmingham, Miami and even Puerto Rico, six to seven pilots fly transplant missions any time of the day — sometimes at 3 a.m. Each pilot makes about two flights a week.

“Somebody can walk out of the hospital with a new heart because the pilots are flying them,” Rimes said.

Hearts, livers and intestines are just a few of the organs pilots collect and transport for patients.

“We do have a time clock. Right when the organ comes out of the patient, it has four hours to be in the other patient,” Rimes said. “These planes are our air ambulances.”

Rimes said UAC also conducts UF ShandsCair flights, which bring patients from across the region to Shands Hospital for treatment. The most worthwhile part for him comes after the flight when patients thank him with a loving hug.

“While everybody’s asleep and we are saving lives in the middle of the day and night,” said Rimes. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Although the crews fly a little more than a thousand medical missions a year, the air center goes relatively unnoticed by the public, Rimes said.

Frederick said some may associate the air center with training and private flights, even though its focus is largely on medical charter missions.

“We have medical air taxis so we can turn our planes into air ambulances, and we can take sick patients that need to go for treatment to a specialized hospital or people who are in an area where maybe there isn’t the level of care that they need,” Frederick said. “We can take out some seats, put in a stretcher container and we have oxygen so this turns into a floating hospital room.”

Aside from completing medical missions, UAC crews also transport all the blood for Life South Community Blood Centers within the region, Frederick said. There is a caravan that takes off at about 6 p.m. each day.

“We fly to Atlanta and we collect the testing tubules and whatever supplies need to come and go,” Frederick said. “Then we go to the four stops in Alabama, and then back to Gainesville, and it gets back about 2 o’clock in the morning. This access speed, efficiency and that unit of whole blood will be available to someone tomorrow morning.”

Whether its through organ transplant collection or patient transfer, UAC is committed to serving the public, Frederick added.

“If we were not flying these medical teams, there are people that would not survive waiting for a transplant,” she said.

This story emerged from an audience question. Submit your curiosities for Untold Florida, and we’ll find the answer. Preference is given to those who include their first name and city.

About Najla Brown

Najla is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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