Woman launches Flying ICU to transport patients regionally

Chances are if you’re flying in one of Donna Miller’s airplanes, you’re lying flat on your back in the comfort of a small, private plane, and it will be the ride of your life — literally.

Miller is the president of Flying ICU, a fixed wing ambulance service that operates from an office adjacent to McCarran International Airport.

Flying ICU is just what the name says, a flying intensive care unit. Much of the company’s work is transporting patients either from rural airports to Las Vegas, to receive care unavailable in the rural community or taking patients from Las Vegas to receive treatment that is unavailable here.

“If someone is waiting for a transplant, they have three hours to get to the hospital,” Miller said. “If that’s at an L.A. hospital, you can’t do that with a commercial flight.”

Miller said that typically, people waiting for a transplant from another city have to temporarily move there, but they are required to have their caregiver with them. If that caregiver is a spouse, that means uprooting a household for as long as six months. She said insurance usually covers only a limited amount of temporary housing costs. The flight is usually less expensive and allows a family to stay in their familiar surroundings.

Not all states regulate the type of equipment and staff required for a flying ambulance. Nevada does, but Flying ICU intentionally overshoots the requirements.

“All of our planes are two engines, even though only one is required,” Miller said. “We have two pilots on each flight because I look at it like, what if the patient was my daughter?’ I want our nurses and paramedics to not even have to think about the running of the plane.”

“On our flights, a patient is often going from a hospital ICU to our ICU in the sky,” Miller said. “They could be on a balloon pump, which is basically an outside heart. We have the same kind of equipment the hospital uses, but it’s all smaller and portable.”

Scaling down the equipment without reducing the quality results in some expensive overhead for the small company. Add the cost of owning and operating three planes and fueling them and it might be obvious that Miller and her staff didn’t get into the business for the money.

“I didn’t go to medical school to get rich,” said Rod Sholty, one of Flying ICU’s nurses. “Nobody goes to medical school for the money now. It’s the nature of the business. I’m doing this because we get to make a difference.”

Another service the company provides is getting visitors with long-term illnesses home. Miller said the company has flown patients as far as Australia, which is an even more epic journey in a small airplane than it is on a commercial jet. Small planes have to refuel more frequently, which keeps them closer to the ground, making for a longer journey.

It’s been a banner year for Miller. She won this year’s Women-Owned Business of the Year Award from the Nevada Small Business Administration and is a finalist for the Southern Nevada chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners’s annual Women of Distinction Awards. The accomplishments are perhaps even more impressive because she didn’t speak English when she emigrated to the United States from Romania 22 years ago. After becoming a U.S. citizen, she graduated from nursing school in 1996 and started Flying ICU in 2002.

While proud of the accolades, she’s quick to point out that the company is a team effort, and she praises her staff as the best in the business.

“I couldn’t ask for a better team,” she said. “They all make this company what it is. I tell people, ‘I don’t work because I come in and do what I love to do.’ You couldn’t ask for more rewarding work.”

Contact East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at ataylor@viewnews.com or 702-380-4532.

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