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UNMH bans medical center helicopter from helipad

Mike Berve, AirCare manager at the San Juan Regional Medical Center, stands beside an air ambulance in 2011. (Brandon Iwamoto/The Daily Times)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The helicopter for a northwestern New Mexico medical center has been banned from landing at the University of New Mexico Hospital, the state’s only Level 1 trauma center, for 10 days.

The suspension against San Juan Regional Medical Center comes as northwestern New Mexico is being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and the hospital is flying an increasing number of patients to Albuquerque hospitals.

The restriction stems from a policy violation that happened early Sunday morning on UNMH’s roof. A pilot for SJRMC’s AirCare program is accused of violating a landing agreement that calls for helicopter pilots to give UNMH notice before lifting off from the helipad after dropping off a patient, according to a Tuesday letter by Robert Perry, manager of emergency preparedness at UNMH.

It wasn’t the first time the policy was violated. SJRMC’s AirCare program was also suspended from landing on the roof for 10 days in early January after a pilot violated the same rule.

Alex Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said multiple operators and aircraft transport patients from around the state to UNMH. Procedures must be followed for the safety of the crews, hospital employees, patients and those who live around the hospital, she said.

“With an average of more than 120 landings per month on our helipad, it is critical that we ensure the safety procedures are followed by all vendors,” she said in a statement.

The suspension doesn’t prohibit the San Juan County hospital from transferring its patients to UNMH. But, instead of landing there, patients will be flown to the Albuquerque International Sunport or a different landing zone in the city and then taken by ambulance to UNMH.

Officials at the hospital in Farmington declined an interview or to answer specific questions about the suspension.

“Our President and CEO Jeff Bourgeois says we are in contact with UNMH representatives working on a resolution,” Laura Werbner, a hospital spokeswoman, said in an email.

San Juan County has some of the highest rates of coronavirus infections and deaths in the state. The county has had 1,203 confirmed cases and 80 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health. By comparison, Bernalillo County, which has more than five times as many people, has had 1,124 cases and 53 deaths.

McKinley County, just south of San Juan, has had 1,681 cases and 57 deaths.

Hospitals in both counties have been flying their most critically ill patients to hospitals better equipped to treat them as a strategy to avoid overtaxing their resources, said Jack Fortner, San Juan County Commission chairman.

That’s why SJRMC officials were trying on Wednesday to come to a resolution with UNMH, he said.

“Safety is always the main issue when flying patients, and I’m sure that San Juan Regional and UNMH are going to resolve this in the best interest of patient safety,” Fortner said. “It’s a difficult time because of the COVID crisis and that’s why I think the communication is open right now.”

The current suspension was a result of an alleged infraction that happened at about 3:30 a.m. Sunday while security personnel were on the hospital’s roof, Perry said in his letter. Hospital policy requires pilots to notify the UNMH Communications Center at least 15 minutes before lifting off from the helipad.

No notification was made and UNMH communications personnel notified supervisors about five minutes after the San Juan County helicopter lifted off, according to the UNMH documents.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the landing zone is “extremely busy,” Perry said.

The current restriction will last for up to 10 days while UNMH investigates the incident.

“We understand the unprecedented times and safety procedures need to be strictly, now more than ever, adhered to for the safety of everyone,” Perry said in an email accompanying his letter to Mike Berve, the AirCare manager at SJRMC.

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