25 years of MedEvac: a time to say thanks


George Hoff was bleeding and unconscious the first time he encountered Maryland State Police Tfc. Chuck Smith. The second time, Mr. Hoff walked up, stuck out his hand and said: "From what the doctors said, you're the one who saved my life."

That second meeting took place yesterday as several hundred people gathered at the state police aviation headquarters at Glenn L. Martin Airport in Middle River to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Maryland's helicopter rescue service.

In that time, the MedEvac program -- now 11 helicopters at eight bases throughout the state -- has rapidly transported to hospitals more than 62,000 critically injured and ill people and become a nationwide model.

Mr. Hoff, 22, who lives in Westminster, and Trooper Smith, 40, a paramedic on a MedEvac helicopter, met informally before the festivities began. The circumstances bore no resemblance to their initial encounter Feb. 11, the day Mr. Hoff nearly died.

He worked for a construction company that was clearing land in Ellicott City. He had just cut down a tree. As workers hauled the tree out of the woods, it snagged and uprooted a dead tree. A limb from the dead tree smacked Mr. Hoff in the head, knocking him unconscious.

By the time Trooper Smith and his state police helicopter landed, Mr. Hoff was "very critical," in the trooper's words. His chance for survival, the trooper recalled yesterday, was "very poor."

Trooper Smith loaded the patient into the helicopter. Four or five minutes later, the helicopter delivered Mr. Hoff to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where doctors treated him for a ruptured artery in his brain.

Mr. Hoff spent six days at Shock Trauma and six days at a rehabilitation hospital. He expects to return to work in five weeks.

Yesterday, he and family members joined the celebration of the state's 25-year-old MedEvac program. Susan Hoff, his mother, said: "The doctors did tell me, absolutely, that if it wasn't for those helicopters, he would have died. Thank God they're here in the state of Maryland."

That sentiment prevailed at yesterday's celebration, which took place inside a large hangar lined with chairs. Speakers stood at a podium in front of a huge American flag and one of the state's 11 state-of-the-art $5.1 million MedEvac helicopters.

The U.S. Naval Academy Band played. Guests were introduced, including James S. Brady, the former White House press secretary wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Brady did not address the crowd, but said afterward that he had come because of his friendship with Maj. Johnny L. Hughes, commander of the state police aviation division. Also, Mr. Brady said, he had heard that Maryland's MedEvac program was "something special."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the keynote speaker, put it this way: "We boast an unmatched record of saving lives. . . . What we have started in Maryland has received worldwide recognition and accolades."

From that humble beginning 25 years ago -- one tiny helicopter transporting one accident victim to the trauma center on March 19, 1970 -- Maryland's MedEvac program has developed into what state officials call perhaps the finest in the world. They point to the eight bases throughout Maryland staffed by 44 flight paramedics and 56 pilots.

The program was the brainchild of Dr. R Adams Cowley, Shock Trauma's founder and first director, who stressed that the best chance of saving trauma victims was to begin treating them in that first "golden hour."

State police transported 197 patients by helicopter in 1970, and 4,179 in 1994. The 25-year total is more than 62,000, with TC survival rate of more than 90 percent. No patient receives a bill for transport. About 67 percent of the program's $15 million annual budget comes from an $8 fee paid as part of residents' car registrations. The rest comes from the state's general fund.

Although the main mission of the MedEvac program is flying critically injured or ill patients to trauma centers, the helicopters also search for suspected criminals or missing persons, rescue boaters and mountaineers, and aid in other aspects of law enforcement.

Helicopter crashes in 1972, 1973 and 1986 claimed the lives of six troopers -- three pilots and three medics. Relatives of the troopers attended yesterday's celebration.

Also in attendance were law enforcement officials from throughout the state and the East Coast. Ms. Townsend told them she hopes they never require MedEvac services.

"If you do, however, be assured of one thing," she said. "You will be flown by the best and cared for by the best."

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