With the closure of Interstate 40 over the Mississippi River, officials on the Arkansas side of the river have had to make plans for medical emergencies in which patients must be transported to Memphis.
Regional One Health’s Elvis Presley Trauma Center in Memphis is the only Level 1 trauma center within a 150 mile radius of the city.
DeWayne Rose, director of emergency management for the City of West Memphis, said authorities had access to two suppliers of medical helicopters and that in the event of inclement weather the Memphis Fire Department offered the use of his fire boat.
“It’s actually a very sophisticated ship,” said Rose.
He said it was about 5 miles by boat from the Port of West Memphis to Harbor Town on Mud Island, on the Tennessee side of the river.
But Rose worries that inclement weather in the air will also mean choppy water on the river.
Rose said they had not used the boat yet and they were not using the helicopters more than usual.
So far, the Interstate 55 bridge has been sufficient to transfer patients to Memphis.
“Unfortunately, all it takes is one wreck on this bridge to make it all stop,” said Brian Welton, CEO and administrator of Baptist Memorial Hospital-Crittenden, the hospital in West Memphis.
Welton said he has had regular meetings with emergency personnel since the Hernando de Soto Bridge on Interstate 40 was closed on May 11 due to a crack in a beam. Highway officials don’t know how long the bridge will be closed yet, but it could take months.
So, for the first time since 1973, there is only one bridge open to automobile traffic between Memphis and West Memphis – the four-lane Interstate 55, also known as the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge.
Although traffic was sometimes backed up for miles in western Memphis, it was not at a standstill on the bridge, Welton said. He said traffic typically moved 15 to 20 miles per hour across the bridge, even at rush hour.
Nonetheless, to help facilitate the scheduled transfer of patients to and from Memphis, Welton said ambulances often make these trips in the wee hours – between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. – to avoid traffic altogether.
“We’re a general acute care facility like most other hospitals in the metro area,” Welton said.
He said the West Memphis hospital treats patients with gunshots, strokes, heart attacks and injuries from car crashes.
But if the injuries warrant intensive care or other specialist work, Welton said patients are being transported to another hospital, such as the Baptist Memorial Hospitals in Memphis or Jonesboro.
The transportation issue was a concern on May 19 when a 39-year-old Pennsylvania truck driver was shot dead while driving on a ramp to the bridge.
“I think he had a bullet in his arm and one in his rib cage,” said Todd Grooms, head of the criminal investigations division at the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office.
Grooms said it appeared to be a road rage incident.
By the time officers arrived at the scene, the gunman was gone, he said.
West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon said he would seek funds to purchase all-terrain vehicles so emergency personnel can get to the bridge faster and help injured people if needed.
The mayor said ATVs would be able to navigate between cars and trucks on the I-55 four-lane bridge and transport an injured person to a waiting ambulance or helicopter.
Nick Coulter, a spokesperson for the City of West Memphis, said the ATVs in question would be similar to the type used in professional football games to take injured players off the pitch.
While it takes months to repair and reopen the Interstate 40 bridge, ATVs will be essential in an emergency on the Interstate 55 bridge, Coulter said.