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Mercy Flights earns its wings

An untimely death during the polio epidemic of the late 1940s inspired George Milligan’s vision of an air ambulance service.

In a Nov. 7, 1983, interview for a Southern Oregon Historical Society oral history project, the founder of Mercy Flights recalled the “terrible ordeal” that polio victims suffered en route to a Portland hospital — the nearest medical facility equipped with an iron lung. Because the polio vaccine wasn’t developed until the mid-1950s, an iron lung was the only option for those with the paralyzing disease that often compromised a patient’s respiratory system.

Ambulances at that time did not have oxygen on board, Milligan recalled, and so the trip north required stops at hospitals in Grants Pass, Roseburg, Eugene and Salem to give the patient oxygen. In the days before the construction of Interstate 5, the journey from Medford to Portland was a horrendous 12-hour trek — one that often made the difference between life and death.

Such was the case in 1949 with Milligan’s mechanic — a casual acquaintance he referred to as “Mr. Winetrout.”

“He was the last person in the world you’d expect to die from polio,” Milligan told a historian. “He was 6-feet, 2-inches tall and husky. In a week he was gone.”

Milligan attributed his death within days of arriving in Portland to the “shock” of the slow, arduous, 12-hour ambulance ride.

Winetrout was among the 2,700 Americans who died in 1949 of polio, out of more than 42,000 polio victims.

Doug Stewart, Mercy Flights current chief executive officer, said Milligan saw that Southern Oregon and Northern California were not immune.

A Medford air traffic controller and former military flight instructor, Milligan “rallied the community” around the idea of transporting polio victims and other critically ill or injured patients to medical facilities by airplane.

Fundraising efforts by the Boy Scouts, schoolchildren and civic clubs enabled Milligan to purchase a twin-engine Cessna — a military surplus plane that had earned distinction as the “Bamboo Bomber.”

On Aug. 24, 1949, Milligan launched Mercy Flights — the first nonprofit civilian air ambulance service in the United States. A licensed pilot, he transported his first patient in 1950 with volunteer medical personnel and medical equipment on board.

At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio paralyzed or killed more than a half-million people worldwide each year. In 1951, “polio was stronger than ever” in Southern Oregon and Northern California, and according to Stewart, “the demand was even greater” for the air ambulance service.

However, the fledgling all-volunteer operation had racked up an $800 debt.

“The operation was upside down,” Stewart said. “Eight-hundred dollars in those days was a lot of money, and money was a serious problem.”

Milligan’s mission was again helped by communitywide financial support, he said. Through the efforts of local businessmen, Milligan was able to initiate the first-ever pre-paid membership program in the country. Paying just $2 a year, subscribers could keep the operation aloft and ensure transport to comprehensive medical facilities.

“Colonel Burns (a local auctioneer) walked the streets and sold 2,000 subscriptions,” Milligan recalled in the 1983 interview. “He raised $4,000 and took us out of debt.”

Turned right-side-up again, “we flew ourselves silly,” he added.

The demand for Mercy Flights’ services required Milligan to purchase a second aircraft, and soon “the two planes were meeting each other coming and going,” he said.

The most famous of Milligan’s fleet, “Iron Annie,” arrived in 1959, and by 1980, the C-45, also known as the “Band-Aid Bomber,” had transported 1,150 patients from Southern Oregon and Northern California to big-city hospitals. The plane also flew missions to locate downed aircraft and assist in firefighting operations.

Milligan, Iron Annie’s chief pilot, once boasted that the plane had flown the most missions of any civilian airplane.

Stewart said Iron Annie was first on the scene when a Aug. 7, 1959, fire in downtown Roseburg ignited a two-ton load of dynamite and four-and-a-half tons of ammonium nitrate. Fourteen people died and scores of others were injured in the blast that leveled eight city blocks.

The plane delivered urgently needed pints of blood, medical supplies and equipment, and quickly evacuated the critically injured.

Milligan, who flew more than 11,000 patients to medical care, died in a fiery air crash just one mile north of the Medford airport in February 1985. Engine trouble was blamed for the crash that claimed three others, including the patient on board.

Before his death, Milligan was writing his memoirs. He recalled the burgeoning Rogue Valley medical community of the 1970s and 1980s.

“Without Mercy Flights, the local hospitals would just be county hospitals, in effect,” he wrote.

Stewart agreed.

As the two area hospitals (Providence Medford and Asante Rogue Regional medical centers) gained national recognition as high-quality regional medical facilities, he said, Mercy Flights began flying in patients from all over western North America.

“They were flying in patients as much as they were flying them out,” he said.

All of this, for the most part, on a volunteer basis until the 1980s. Today, Mercy Flights has 115 employees, including 80 medically trained staff and eight pilots, and “no volunteers,” Stewart said.

Stewart, who was recruited as a paramedic in 1994, has witnessed Mercy Flights’ evolution into a regional medical transportation network that includes 20 ambulances, two fixed-wing crafts and a helicopter.

With the purchase of Medford Ambulance Service in 1992, the acquisition of Rogue Ambulance in 1993, and cooperative agreements with other Jackson County first-responders, Mercy Flights covers some 2,000 square miles. It also coordinates ground ambulance services in Josephine and Douglas counties.

In 1995, Mercy Flights partnered with Timberland Corp. to provide emergency helicopter service to calls within a 150-mile radius of Medford. In fall 2015, Mercy Flights went solo with a brand new, state-of-the-art Bell 407GX-EMS helicopter.

The need for helicopter rescues became crystal clear in 1994 when Stewart, then a paramedic, and his colleague failed in their first attempt to bring a hunting accident victim out from “way deep” in the Applegate Valley by truck.

Stewart credited the subsequent evacuation by airplane as saving the patient’s life.

Mercy Flights responds to some 200 emergencies each year by helicopter, most of which are heart attacks, car crashes and injuries related to hunting and outdoor sports. In the logging industry’s heyday, accidents in the woods and mills kept Mercy Flights busy, Stewart said.

In an average year, 400 patients are flown by plane to and from medical centers throughout the western United States; another 18,000 are transported by ambulance to area hospitals.

Subscriptions have grown to include 15,000 households in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Keeping in the spirit of Milligan’s goal to improve patient-centered medical care, Mercy Flights has partnered with Asante Rogue Regional and Providence Medford.

Mercy Flights’ paramedics are wired in to Asante’s STEMI (Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction) program — a regional heart attack response system that Stewart said mobilizes Asante’s cardiology staff before the patient’s arrival at the hospital.

The STEMI program “has saved more lives than you can count,” Stewart said.

A Jackson Care Connect grant is underwriting a mobile integrated health care partnership between Mercy Flights and Providence. Paramedics are making house calls to assist patients who make frequent, often unnecessary, costly visits to the emergency room. Patients receive education in medication management and home safety, and are connected to health care and community resources.

Like Milligan’s early grassroots operation, this program, Stewart said, “will fill a huge gap in patient care.”

And, it might very well be a matter of life and death.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

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Mercy Flights fleet in the 1960s. Photo courtesy Mercy Flights
A 14-year-old boy who was struck by a vehicle at Ninth Street and Riverside Avenue in Medford is loaded into a Mercy Flights ambulance in 2010. Mail Tribune file photo