| Bridge Crash Aftermath Underscores Need for Helipad
By Fran Taylor, Member Walk San Francisco Jul 14, 2008
A head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge in May threw the evening commute into chaos and drew immediate cries for new safety measures. Lost in the flurry of traffic reports and debate about possible barriers, however, was the aftermath of the crash for the most seriously hurt victim. Dr. Grace M. Dammann had to be transported by helicopter about 25 miles to John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek because San Francisco General Hospital lacks a helipad for its acclaimed Level 1 Trauma Center.
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The driver of the car that crossed into oncoming traffic and caused the crash was taken by ambulance to SFGH with moderate injuries. But Dammann had to be extricated from her crushed car and airlifted to emergency care for life-threatening injuries.
Dammann, a physician at Laguna Honda Hospital, was instrumental in setting up a step-down unit for AIDS patients. The Dalai Lama honored her personally in 2005, when she was one of 47 recipients from around the world of the “Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award.
She has worked in San Francisco’s public health system for more than 20 years, making her well known to workers at San Francisco General Hospital, where she could have been treated by the Trauma Center’s crack team if only rescue workers could have gotten her there. She is part of San Francisco’s community of public health workers, and many of her colleagues have begun to donate their own sick leave to her under the City’s catastrophic illness program.
Dammann also has a large circle of friends at the Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin, as well as several siblings. John Muir Hospital gave excellent care during her monthlong stay there, but staff may have been a bit overwhelmed by the unusual number of visitors. San Francisco General, a public hospital located in the heart of a major city and veteran of the AIDS epidemic, is more flexible about visiting hours and accustomed to large, unconventional extended families and groups of friends. In extreme medical situations such as Dammann’s, individuals may be unable to offer immediate care to a patient, but they do need contact with each other for information exchange, emotional support, and clarity about who’s dealing with what practical matters.
The main problem with Dammann’s transport, however, was the sheer distance and difficulty of access to the Walnut Creek facility. The John Muir website offers little direct help, referring users to Yahoo maps and their driving directions. Information about public transportation is nonexistent, and visitors using transit must navigate BART and local bus system websites to find their way. One-way fare from Civic Center in San Francisco to Walnut Creek BART is $4.50, and the hospital is a long walk from the station. The County Connection bus from BART to John Muir costs $1.75 one way, and it doesn’t run on Sunday and has minimal Saturday service. Visitors who drive, of course, must shell out for gas and bridge tolls.
San Francisco General Hospital, in contrast, is served by five Muni lines and SamTrans and is a short, flat walk from BART. The hospital is also served during the workweek by a system of free shuttle buses to BART, the UCSF campus, and Mission Bay.
SFGH is the only Level 1 Trauma Center in the city, and San Francisco is the only one of the top 25 cities in the U.S. that does not have a helipad, according to the Medical Helipad Project website. Besides providing a way to transport patients like Dammann to the hospital, a helipad would serve in an emergency such as an earthquake as a means to move patients out of an overloaded facility. The fate of patients marooned in New Orleans hospitals after Hurricane Katrina provided new evidence of the need for this capability.
The proposed helipad at SFGH has been mired in controversy and delayed for years, opposed by some neighbors who object to noise and worry about the effect on their property values. One neighbor shrugged off the need for a helipad at SFGH in 2005, saying “San Francisco is only eight air minutes from Stanford Hospital.” As the plight of Grace Dammann’s family and friends illustrates, however, the initial trip is only the beginning for airlifted patients.
For further information, visit http://www.sfdph.org/dph/comupg/oservices/medSvs/Helipad/default.asp.
Fran Taylor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 947-6497.
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