New Nightingale leaves the nest

Published 2:46 pm Saturday, July 23, 2011

New Nightingale: Sentara Norfolk General Hospital president Mary Blunt smashes a bottle of sparkling cider across the helicopter’s skid to officially introduce the aircraft as the new Nightingale air ambulance at the hospital Friday. The helicopter replaces the old Nightingale, which flew for 25 years.

Jaleesa Lewter might not remember her experience on the Nightingale Regional Air Ambulance, but the four-minute flight from Suffolk to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital gave her an irreplaceable souvenir — her life.

Nightingale carried an unconscious Lewter to the hospital five years ago after she sustained a serious spinal injury in a car accident, and she credits the flight crew with saving her life.

“They’re great people,” she said. “They really help.”

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Lewter was one of eight former Nightingale patients who visited the Norfolk hospital Friday to support the christening of the new Nightingale.

“I want to be here because (Nightingale) saves lives, like mine,” she said.

Norfolk General president Mary Blunt officially inducted the aircraft, a Eurocopter EC-145, as the new Nightingale by smashing a bottle of sparkling cider across its skid.

Through the help of the community, Sentara Health Foundation raised $3.5 million in contributions to fund the new aircraft, which cost $7.2 million.

This is the fourth aircraft to serve as Nightingale, and it replaces a helicopter that served for 25 years.

“The old Nightingale served our community well, but we are excited about the new Nightingale and its equipment,” said Norfolk councilwoman Dr. Theresa Whibley.

The new Nightingale has more lifting capacity, longer range, higher cruising speed and an improved safety system, featuring technologies such as night vision equipment and weather radar.

Nightingale program manager Chris Cannon said many of the new features were added to take strain off of the pilot. For example, the weather radar can help the pilot decide the best route to take to the hospital.

Cannon said the monitoring equipment is attached to removable rails on the walls of the aircraft so it can be more easily replaced by updated technology.

“As medical technology evolves, the helicopter can too,” he said.

Having a more adaptable helicopter, Cannon said, shows Sentara’s commitment to the Nightingale program, which Sentara has offered for almost 30 years.

Jason Fletcher, a firefighter in Elizabeth City, N.C., also shared his experience with the aircraft at the christening event.

In 2009, Fletcher received a call from his wife, who said his daughters, Katie and Laura, had been in a car accident.

While Laura was all right, Katie had a severe head injury and had to be flown to Norfolk General.

Fletcher said he was relieved to know Nightingale was carrying his daughter.

“It was a relief because I knew where she was going to go and the kind of care she would get,” he said.

Even after she arrived at Norfolk General, Fletcher said, the crewmembers paid special attention to his daughter and the rest of his family.

“They took us by the hand and helped us out,” he said. “They continued to show care that wasn’t expected.”

He said some of the members keep in contact with Katie to this day.

Lewter’s mother, Donna, said the Nightingale crew showed her daughter the same care and consideration, and she and her husband, Ronald, are thankful for their attentiveness.

“We’re ever so grateful to Nightingale,” she said. “They say minutes can save lives, and it certainly did for Jaleesa.”