20 Years of Saving Lives in WNY



The 20th anniversary of Mercy Flight, celebrated Saturday at Woodlawn Beach State Park, held a particularly special meaning for Matthew Schrantz.

Schrantz, a UB junior history major, not only works as community events coordinator for Mercy Flight, the Western New York emergency air medical transport service, but was also the agency's first passenger nearly two decades ago.

About a month after Schrantz was born on Aug. 13, 1981, he developed a staph infection after surgery for a gastrointestinal condition at Children's Hospital in Buffalo. After several weeks of intensive treatment, Schrantz was scheduled to be transferred via ambulance to a hospital near his home in Springville where he could continue therapy closer to his parents.

However, when Sept. 27, the date of transfer, arrived, a Rolling Stones concert held at Rich Stadium competed with the infant for local medical attention. All the available ambulances were on stand-by at the concert venue while Schrantz and his parents awaited transfer to Betrand Chaffee Hospital.

Mercy Flight was also in its infancy in 1981. The independent, non-for-profit agency had been in operation for only about a week when it offered to transport Schrantz and his mother Darlene to Betrand Chaffee Hospital. Mr. and Mrs. Schrantz agreed and the infant Matthew made local history, arriving at the facility in a helicopter as Mercy Flight's first passenger.

Now, Schrantz works for Mercy Flight, raising awareness of and fundraising for the service which helped him twenty years ago.

"You're involved with something where you're raising funds for what is a great organization and that saves many lives," Schrantz said of his job with Mercy Flight. "You definitely feel like you're doing something worthwhile."

Mercy Flight, headquartered in Woodlawn, about 25 miles south of Buffalo, operates three helicopters that serve all eight counties of Western New York. The 24-hour, (weather-permitting), emergency response service has transported over 11,000 patients since its inception - and served 168 patients in the last two months alone, according to Mercy Flight dispatcher Jim Stevenson.

The agency has two main missions. First, as in Schrantz's case, Mercy Flight provides inter-hospital transfers, transporting patients from one health care facility to another that might provide more specialized or intensive medical care.

In addition to these more routine, often scheduled missions, Mercy Flight also provides on-scene medical assistance in a wide variety of emergency situations, transporting critically ill or critically injured patients to area hospitals.

"In many cases time is of the essence," said Schrantz. "The length of time to go from Springville to ECMC (Erie County Medical Center), which is probably at least 45 minutes by ambulance can be cut down to probably no more than 15 to 20 by helicopter."

Paramedics responding to an accident follow "trauma triage" guidelines to assess the severity of the injury and to determine whether to enlist the help of Mercy Flight, explained Andy Barlow, a paramedic with Twin City Ambulance who was on-hand at the anniversary celebration.

"They're lifesavers," said Barlow of Mercy Flight. "They save valuable minutes getting patients to the hospital." Motor vehicle accidents, major falls (over 20 feet), head and neck injury and other forms of trauma are prime candidates for Mercy Flight assistance, Barlow said.

Additionally, Mercy Flight is often utilized when accidents occur in more remote areas, miles away from the nearest hospital.

Stevenson said that in the Elma area where he used to serve as a volunteer firefighter, it takes upwards of 20 minutes to get to ECMC's trauma center by ground. By helicopter, the time is cut in half - shaving often critical minutes off travel time to the hospital.

Unlike most medical transport services in the country which are associated with and financed by a particular hospital, Mercy Flight is independent.

"We're community based, which basically means that we go to whatever the best hospital is for the patient," said Schrantz. "The drawback, though, comes in the way that we don't have the financial means these other services have."

"They only have a certain number of helicopters and unfortunately there are a lot of people who call for their services," said Barlow.

According to Schrantz, between 50 and 60 percent of the agency's $3.5 million annual budget comes from third-party payers, the insurance companies for the patients they fly. New York State and the various counties in which Mercy Flight operates provide financial assistance, but a large portion of the remainder of the budget comes from private individual and group dontations.

Fundraising is thus a central part of Schrantz's job with Mercy Flight. Schrantz was involved in organizing the 20th anniversary "Bash on the Beach" which was in part designed to raise money for the agency.

While the success of the bash as a fundraising tool is yet to be determined, the celebration was clearly a success in terms of raising awareness of the service. The celebration - commencing at noon and culminating with fireworks at 10 p.m. - drew several thousand people to Woodlawn Beach, according to Schrantz.

Mercy Flight pilots offered helicopter rides all day long while local bands entertained patrons lounging on the sand in the 85-degree heat. The festivities also featured a chicken barbeque, a beer tent, food vendors and a children's play-area.