Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

For the last 14 years, Mission Health Systems has stationed a helicopter at Angel Medical Center to serve the needs of the citizens in Western North Carolina. MAMA II (Mountain Area Medical Airlift) has been based in Franklin since 2004 and has made it possible for what would take nearly and hour and a half drive to get to Mission Hospital, just a 15-minute helicopter ride.

Despite 14 years in Macon County, Mission Health Systems confirmed Wednesday morning that they are actively seeking a new location, outside of Franklin, to relocate MAMA II.

“Mission Health has been exploring land options in Macon County and surrounding areas for a very long time with a goal of identifying a location for the Mountain Area Medical Airlift (MAMA II) helicopter that can improve its ability to support patients more effectively,” said Rowena Buffett Timms, Senior Vice President of Government and Community Relations, Mission Health. “Currently, the location for MAMA II at Angel Medical Center sits below the fog line and as a result, the helicopter is unable to fly as much as 40 percent of the time because of unsafe weather, including fog, clouds and storms. Morning fog and summer afternoon storms are common around Angel Medical Center.”

From January 2016 until Feb. 6, 2018, Macon County Emergency Services called for the use of the MAMA II helicopter 213 times. While the helicopter was called for 213 times, that doesn’t mean it was necessarily used each time.

“EMS may have cancelled them after arriving on scene and determining that there was no need to fly the patient or the weather may have been too bad and the service declined to fly,” said Todd Seagle with Macon County 911 Dispatch. “Or one service may have already been busy and we called a second service to fly a patient. In this instance, two helicopter services would be assigned to the same call but only one flew the patient.”

In addition to MAMA II, Macon County EMS called on MAMA I, Mission’s primary helicopter based in Asheville, 21 times from January 2016 until Feb 2018.

Because Mission Hospital and its helicopters serve all of Western North Carolina, there are times that Macon County EMS has called on the helicopters, but they have been tied up due to other needs in the region. When that occurs, Seagle said that other helicopters are dispatched to Macon County. In the same time period, Macon County had 45 calls to three other helicopters that are able to serve Macon County.

“Air Life 14 is a relatively new service that is based in Blairsville, Ga., and they have become our ‘go to’ service if both MAMA crews are already busy,” said Seagle. “Life Star is based out of Knoxville, Tenn., with the University of Tennessee and Life Force is based out of Chattanooga, Tenn., with Erlanger Hospital.  We also use these services if MAMA is busy and since they fly from the west then the weather can be better for them to fly into our area and pick up a patient and fly back to Tennessee, especially if the weather is still bad to the east [Mission Hospital].”

Mission Health Systems is currently in the process of relocating Angel Medical Center and downsizing the entire facility. The first move toward the smaller facility came last year when Mission Health ended labor and delivery services at Angel Medical Center. While Mission Health is proposing a $45 million hospital rebuild along the highway in Macon County, the new facility will be considerably smaller and will not include labor and delivery. When asked if a helipad would also make the move with the new hospital, or if the new hospital location would alleviate the concerns of the adverse weather, Mission Health was not able to answer as of press time.

Macon County Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe said that in the event Mission Health pulls MAMA II from Macon County, his staff will continue evaluating patient needs quickly and calling in other available services to provide the best care possible for patients.

Timms said nothing is final and that Mission will continue working on the issue.

“While we continue to explore possible sites, at the present time we have not confirmed a new location,” said Timms. “Our focus has been and will always remain to ensure that we provide the community with the safest and most reliable emergency medical transport options, with improved transport times and increased ability to provide critical care transport via MAMA II when air transport is needed. If and when a more effective location is identified and confirmed, we will share that information.”