UAB’s Critical Care Transport celebrates 30 years

After 30 years and millions of miles, UAB’s Critical Care Transport Service is still going strong.

It flew 21 patients out of New Orleans when Hurricanes Katrina and then Rita bore down on the Gulf Coast and plucked eight premature babies out of the path of Hurricane Gustav. It travels around the world and down the street to safely transport very sick patients from one hospital to another, to get them to the most appropriate care. It is the Critical Care Transport Service at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), and it is 30 years old.

In the early 1980s, UAB physicians realized that patients with significant medical issues requiring transfer to UAB for advanced care needed a better transport system than an ordinary ambulance. They needed vehicles with the same kind of equipment found in a hospital intensive care unit (ICU), staffed by the same kind of medical professionals who work in those units.

That need lead to the creation of the CCT, with a jet aircraft – a flying ICU – and three ground ambulances – rolling ICU’s – as well as the critical care nurses, respiratory therapists and physicians needed to make the transfers go smoothly and safely.

“We can go to just about anywhere on the planet if need be, but most of the patients we bring to UAB for the specialized care available through UAB Medicine come from the Southeastern United States,” said Laura Lee Demmons, director of CCT. “It’s a great resource for physicians and patients around the world that we have the equipment and expertise to safely transport patients to UAB.”

Demmons says the first patient – or rather first four patients – were particularly special. They were quadruplet babies born to Debbie and David Tanner at UAB Hospital on March 16, 1983. Debbie had been transferred to UAB due to the difficult pregnancy. The Tanner quads were the first quadruplets born in Alabama to all survive. Seven days later, the CCT made it possible for them to go back to their home hospital.

The team has flown 23 million air miles, driven 6 million ground miles and transported more than 41,500 patients from 48 states and 38 foreign countries since it first took Debbie, Anne Rain, Griffin, Emily and Christopher Tanner on that five-mile trip.

“They asked if I’d like to inaugurate the critical care transport system,” recalled Debbie Tanner. “They wheeled me out to this shiny, new ambulance, and here come the little incubators. It was amazing because we all fit into this big, mobile unit, almost like a stretch operating room.”

The team has flown 23 million air miles, driven 6 million ground miles and transported more than 41,500 patients from 48 states and 38 foreign countries since it first took Debbie, Anne Rain, Griffin, Emily and Christopher Tanner on that five-mile trip.

“I hadn’t even thought about how in the world we would move four babies who are still in incubators,” said Debbie. “We really couldn’t have done it without the transport system.”

The Tanner’s held the CCT record for most patients transported at one time until Hurricane Gustav approached New Orleans in 2008. A hospital there, already without power, called and said they had eight babies in neonatal ICU who needed to be moved.

“We said we normally don’t transport eight babies at once, but the referring physician said, ‘you need to come get these babies or they are not going to make it,’” said Demmons. “So, we went and got eight babies at once.”

There have been other high points. CCT was the first Western medical team to land in Petropavlovsk, Russia. The CTT team once used a gondola as ground transport in Italy. They made multiple flights into ravaged New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, bringing basic supplies in and flying sick patients out.

CCT is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS), and it was the first hospital-based transport program in Alabama and the surrounding five-state area to gain such accreditation in 1999. They have contributed more than 24 journal articles, book chapters, position papers, practice standards and research presentations to scientific literature.

Demmons, who started as a registered nurse on the team in the first year of operation, has seen a lot in the ensuing 30 years.

“This is the best job I have ever had and will ever have,” she said. “One physician wrote back after we transported his patient to UAB and said, ‘Your team saved my patient’s life; now he’s home and well.’ That’s what it’s all about.”

CCT’s current jet, a Cessna Citation Bravo, is unique in the field. It is one of the very few medical jets that can carry two adult passengers at the same time. The ground ambulances are designed with patient and crew safety in mind, and they are being refitted to operate on bio-diesel fuel.

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