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Return of rotor (helicopter) ambulance service to Valley key to enhancing life-saving emergency care - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Featured: Robert D. Martínez, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Physician Executive, DHR Health, addressing state legislators, county and city officials, and other community leaders at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance on Thursday, December 20, 2018 as part of the State of the Hospital Address.

Photograph Courtesy DHR Health


Return of rotor (helicopter) ambulance service to Valley key to enhancing life-saving emergency care

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Within two months of DHR Health’s announcement on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 that it began functioning as a Level I trauma care facility, another key piece to the Rio Grande Valley’s life-saving emergency medical care was launched on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 with the return of rotor (helicopter) ambulance service provided by the privately-owned Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med.

Air Med 1, which is a Bell 407 GX rotor (helicopter) ambulance, represents the fulfillment of a promise earlier this year by the leadership of Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med to bring such state-of-the-art, emergency life-saving capabilities to deep South Texas after Air Evac Lifeteam in McAllen immediately ceased operations on Thursday, January 31, 2019.

Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med has more than 100 ambulances, wheel chair vans, supervisor units, as well as a communications bus used for disasters, a special operations trailer equipped for mass casualty incidents, and two fixed wing Beechcraft King Air 90 air ambulances dedicated to emergency transfers.

Rotor (helicopter) ambulances can be seen as substitutes for ground ambulances, because they can land almost anywhere. They typically serve patients in true emergency situations, where quick access to a trauma center is literally a matter of life and death.

Robert D. Martínez, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Physician Executive, DHR Health, and Marissa Casteñeda, Senior Executive Vice President, DHR Health, were among several dozen local, regional, and state leaders on hand that day for the ribbon cutting ceremony and press conference, which took place at the South Texas International Airport at Edinburg, to officially celebrate the arrival of Air Med 1.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” Martínez said of Air Med 1, crediting Kenny Ponce, President/CEO of Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med, for Ponce’s vision to invest into the helicopter air ambulance service. “We (DHR Health) have had a (helicopter ambulance) landing pad for years, now. It’s right across the street from the emergency room, so it is right where they need to be right now. People land there when they need to – it’s set up and ready to go.”

“Restoring rotor (helicopter) ambulance service to Hidalgo County is the right thing to do,” said Ponce. “It’s something we have been working on the past several months to ensure that this community has this type of service.”

DHR Health is the only locally owned and operated hospital left in Hidalgo and Cameron counties. DHR is the flagship teaching hospital for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School Of Medicine and offers some of the most comprehensive medical care on the U.S. southern border, with more than 1,400 nurses and 700 physicians providing care in 70 specialties and sub-specialties.

DHR Health began functioning as a Level 1 trauma center in preparation for verification and designation.

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services provides the designation of trauma centers.

A Level I trauma center provides the highest level of care and is capable of providing total care for every aspect of injury, from prevention through rehabilitation, with the nearest Level 1 trauma center in San Antonio. There are currently only 18 in the state. As the primary teaching hospital for UTRGV’s School of Medicine, DHR Health’s pursuit of reaching the Level I trauma center designation is also paying off for medical education.

“There are more medical residents on the ground, medical students,” Martínez said. “The differences include that there has been a lot more research around what we are doing.

“We had been talking with Kenny (Ponce) for a few years, around different initiatives,” Martínez recalled. “We saw the need for a Level I trauma center four or five years ago, and obviously, there is a pathway on how to get there.”

Since DHR Health began functioning as a Level I trauma center, DHR Health leaders continue to make good on their dedication to providing the highest quality medical care and education, along with health care programs and other many other related initiatives, to help the estimated 1.5 million residents in the Valley, Martínez said.

“Everybody has their idea about how it (establishing a Level 1 trauma center) should happen, but some things are for sure: you need the physicians, you need the physicians 24/7, and you need a wide array and a deep bench of those,” he explained. “Doctors Hospital has been committed to building that bench, and as wide as an array of specialties as you need to be able to provide the support to not have to fly people out of there.

“We’ve done it, we’re there,” Martínez continued. “Our bench could include up to six or seven neurosurgeons, including pediatric subspecialties. This is the final step in really cementing a tremendously high level of service here in South Texas so folks are getting the same treatment they are getting in a big city, and lives are being saved within that ‘Golden Hour’.”

The “Golden Hour” was first described by R. Adams Cowley, MD, at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. From his personal experiences and observations in post-World War II Europe, and then in Baltimore in the 1960s, Cowley recognized that the sooner trauma patients reached definitive care— particularly if they arrived within 60 minutes of being injured — the better their chance of survival.

With the commitment by Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med to re-introduce helicopter ambulance service to the Rio Grande Valley, the chances that patients will be timely taken to the areas only functioning level I trauma facility within the “Golden Hour” and receive life-saving treatment are increased.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine has won the Texas Medical Association-Medical Student Section (TMA-MSS) 2018-2019 Chapter of the Year Award for its efforts in community service and recruitment of TMA members.

UTRGV medical students received the award at the TMA’s annual conference, TexMed 2019, which took place on Friday, May 17 and Saturday, May 18, 2019 in Dallas.

In addition, medical students Amanda Arreola (MS4) and Sarah Miller (MS3) were elected to chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Medical Student Section Executive Council. Patrick Ojeaga (MS3), UTRGV TMA chapter president, and Jared Sperling (MS2) were chosen to be members of the TMA-MSS Board Council and serve on board committees.

Arreola, a member of the medical school’s inaugural class, said she is proud that subsequent classes have continued and expanded the chapter’s involvement.

“We were just setting it up, getting ourselves a presence established on campus, but they really took it and ran with it,” she said.

The TMA noted that UTRGV’s participation in TMA-sponsored events provided bicycle helmets to children and offered vaccinations to more than 60 residents, and other initiatives trained them how to use proper bleeding control techniques to save lives and administer naloxone auto-injectors to stop the effects of an opioid drug overdose.

Of all the community service activities the chapter engaged in, students agree that the immunization event was among the most meaningful because it was an example of the School of Medicine fulfilling its mission to engage the communities it serves and provide excellent care.

“It was really great to see how students from all classes came together to administer vaccinations to our community members,” Sperling said. “To be able to partner with the Student Run Clinic and positively impact our community as medical students is one of the many things that makes our school so unique and so special.”

The students said they were honored to receive this award, considering the UTRGV School of Medicine is a young school, and said they are grateful for support from School of Medicine leadership and faculty, as well as support from the Hidalgo-Starr County Medical Society.

“They make sure we’ve had places to stay, that we’re taken care of at conferences,” Miller said. “They always engage with us and they are a big part of why we are so successful as a chapter.”

Dr. John H. Krouse, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine, praised the medical students for their commitment to community service and offered congratulations on the recognition by TMA-MSS.

“These students have embraced the School of Medicine’s mission to serve the Rio Grande Valley community and advance health care in this region,” he said. “By engaging with Valley residents through showing them how to stop bleeding, offering vaccinations and handing out bicycle helmets to children at health fairs, our students have been excellent ambassadors of the School of Medicine, demonstrating our commitment to improving the health and well-being of the people of the Valley.”

The Texas Medical Association (TMA) created its Medical Student Section in the 1970s to gain the student perspective among its members and receive input from medical students on TMA and American Medical Association’s (AMA) policy-making processes. The TMA-MSS now has more than 6,500 members.
The TMA began offering the Chapter of the Year Award in 1998 to recognize TMA-MSS chapters for their leadership, dedication and service to TMA and the AMA.

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The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.


Jennifer Berghom contributed to this article. For more information, please contact Roberto Haddad, Vice President and Counsel for Government Affairs and Policy at DHR Health, or Jesse Ozuna, Government Affairs Officer at DHR Health, at 956/362-7165. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (

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