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Emilio’s first flight – earlier than planned

Only the runway lights shine out at Zurich Airport on this early Tuesday morning. But the hangar at the Rega Centre is already bustling with activity: the Rega jet crew is preparing for the mission for premature baby Emilio.

While on holiday in Alta Badia (Italy), pregnant Anna complains of sudden discomfort, then her condition deteriorates dramatically. The local doctors diagnose preeclampsia. Baby Emilio sees the light of day in the hospital in Bolzano after an emergency caesarean section in the 29th week of pregnancy. He weighs just over 1,400 grams.

Extensive clarifications at the Operations Centre

Just over five weeks later, the time has come: the little boy is strong enough to fly home in Rega’s ambulance jet. Already early in the morning, the crew are preparing for this mission at the Rega Centre at Zurich Airport. Inside the ambulance jet, pilots Daniel Landert and Roland Oberholzer help intensive care nurse Erika Keller to secure the transport incubator. But the preparations for Emilio’s repatriation had actually begun much earlier. For several weeks, the medical consultants and flight coordinators at the Rega Operations Centre had been in contact with the attending doctors in Italy, as well as with Emilio’s parents, in order to determine whether the tiny patient’s state of health would allow him to be transported back home, and if so, when the return flight would be sensible.

Immediately after birth, Emilio would not have been ready for his first big journey across the Alps. The tissues in his tiny body and his organs would not have been able to cope with the stresses and strains of transportation. But with each day in the neonatal intensive care unit, he had grown increasingly stronger and was now finally fit enough to fly.

Taking off for Bolzano

One hour before takeoff at Zurich Airport, the jet crew meet with the flight coordinator for a briefing. On this occasion, the crew is larger than usual. Dr Corinne Däster and Fiona Lercher from the neonatology department at Aarau Cantonal Hospital (KSA) are accompany ing the Rega mission as additional specialists. The crew is briefed and the jet is ready for take off. In Italy, too, everyone is informed about the mission, and the Rega flight coordinator has organised ground transport from Bolzano Airport to and from the hospital. Now there is nothing standing in the way of departure.

As the ambulance jet is pushed out of the hangar, the sun is rising in the sky above Zurich Airport. A short time later, the jet taxis onto the runway. Once in the air, intensive care nurse Erika Keller makes the final preparations on the transport incubator so that it is ready for the journey to the hospital in northern Italy. “Of course we prepare ourselves as well as possible for a mission like this. But we also always need to be prepared for something unforeseen to happen, when we have to react spontaneously.”

Handover at the neonatal intensive care unit

In Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, the ambulance is already waiting for the jet as it taxis towards it. The crew push the transport incubator down the ramp onto the tarmac and into the ambulance vehicle. The hospital, whose intensive care unit has been Emilio’s temporary home for the last few weeks, is just a few minutes’ drive away.

At the hospital, standing next to Emilio’s cot, the Italian doctor in attendance once again summarises the first weeks of the premature baby’s life: due to the prior clarifications by the Rega medical consultants, the Rega crew already know that the little boy had suffered a minor brain haemorrhage two days after he was born and shortly afterwards blood poisoning, too. On the day of his big journey, however, Emilio’s condition is stable. He now weighs just over 2,000 grams and can even take in food himself.

Fiona Lercher gently places the young patient in the Rega transport incubator. The incubator is preheated to 32 °C, because premature babies are often not yet able to regulate their own body temperature. Emilio’s oxygen saturation and heart rate are also constantly monitored in the incubator.

Emilio’s first flight across the Alps

The transport by ambulance to the waiting Rega jet goes off without a hitch, and a short time later the crew push the mobile incubator containing the tiny baby into the aircraft cabin. Pilots Daniel Landert and Roland Oberholzer greet Emilio’s parents, who are flying to Switzerland with them. “We certainly didn’t expect our son’s first flight to take place so early in his life,” says Emilio’s father Mario before takeoff.

Inside the ambulance jet, the final preparations are made for Emilio’s repatriation. Shortly afterwards, the pilots receive clearance for takeoff in the direction of Zurich. The green light is also given from the jet cabin: Emilio is ready for the return journey across the Alps. During the flight, he continues to be closely monitored and cared for – not only by the medical crew, but also by his parents.

Emilio is fast asleep when the Rega jet lands at Zurich Airport around midday. After the in cubator is unloaded, he is handed over to the waiting ambulance staff in the Rega hangar. Accompanied by the KSA neonatology team, they drive him and his parents to a central hospital, where he can continue to be monitored and receive topquality care. Emilio has completed his first big flight with flying colours – albeit a little earlier than planned.

  • Therapy options, medical facilities and hygiene conditions on location
  • possible complications and the  expected duration of hospitalisation, treatment and rehabilitation
  • risk and appropriateness of a transport
  • social reasons

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