HME manufacturers step up to help hurricane victims

Sunday, September 11, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- In late August, two hours after Medline's president of operations phoned the Winthrop, Ill., police department, requesting a rescue mission for customers and patients in New Orleans, a helicopter lifted off and started south.

Over the next four days, two pilots and two crew airlifted some 1,700 people to safety, including one 4-year old boy who was plucked from a roof by one of the crew members while a man on a neighboring roof aimed a gun at the crewman.

"If they didn't rescue that kid, the fear was they were going to shoot down that helicopter," said Lori Bolas, Medline's director of corporate communications, who helped organize the communications piece of the Medline mission.

Medline is one of a number of HME vendors who've stepped up efforts to provide relief to the hurricane's victims. Invacare, for example, set up a hotline for customers and consumers who need durable medical equipment. Pride Mobility Products and Sunrise Medical have shipped medical equipment to refugees at the Astrodome in Houston and the Reunion Arena in Dallas.

Medline jumped to action after a distress call from one of its hospital customers, Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA, requesting helicopter evacuations for patients at its New Orleans area facilities. The Winthrop police department mobilized two helicopter pilots, one of whom -- Dan Bitton -- had flown combat missions in Vietnam and later responded to the bombings of the federal building in New York and the World Trade Center towers in New York.

Bitton, a second pilot, Randal Olson, and two crew members, Michael Salasco and Rick Concepcion, flew into deluged region on Tuesday, before New Orleans' levees broke. They were among the first 10 helicopters to arrive. By the time they finished, 300 other helicopters had joined an evacuation that Bitton likened to the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

"It was a lot like Saigon when you land and try to pick up five and 30 want to get on board," Bitton said in a news report broadcast by a CBS affiliate in Illinois.

The rescue effort was complicated by helicopters that remained grounded because they lacked night-vision equipment that the Winthrop Harbor helicopter had. The job, they soon learned, was vast.

"After one night, the commander (Bitton) went to federal government operatives and said we need your help, this is bigger than us," said Bolas.

Bitton's crew repeatedly airlifted out refugees, some in stretchers, and replenished dwindling supplies on return trips. On one of those trips back in, Concepcion hung from the end of a safety harness with his toes hooked on the skids of the hovering helicopter. As he reached for a 4-year-old boy, he saw a man aiming a rifle at him.

"It made me feel good to grab this child off that roof and toss him into the helicopter and get him out of there safely," Concepcion told CBS News.