It started out like any other day in the COVID-19-driven, work-from-home world of early 2020. Donna Smith, a systems analyst at health plan provider Anthem, Inc., was on yet another of a seemingly endless series of online meetings when she suddenly started feeling ill. Sweating profusely and with a wave of nausea washing over her, she left the meeting to lay down in the washroom, hoping the coolness of the hardwood floor would lower her temperature and settle her stomach.

When her symptoms persisted, she called out to her husband to dial 9-1-1 as she thought she might be having a heart attack. When the paramedics arrived, they first suggested she was having a panic attack. But after running several EKG tests they realized they couldn’t rule out a heart attack, as the symptoms for both are very similar.

Normally, someone in this condition would be taken to the local hospital by ambulance. But because the paramedics and emergency department physicians at the hospital weren’t sure of the cause or severity of Smith’s illness, it was recommended that she go to the VCU Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia where she could receive more advanced emergency care.

The challenge was VCU Medical Center is roughly a 50-minute ride by ground ambulance from her home nestled in a bucolic, rural area on the banks of the Rappahannock River – time the physicians and paramedics were concerned Smith didn’t have. So the decision was made to call Air Methods for an air transport.

The helicopter met the ambulance at the helipad that sat a few hundred yards from the rural hospital, and Smith was transferred onto it for what would be her first – and she hopes her last – helicopter ride.

“I was afraid, both for my situation and for the ride, but the Air Methods paramedics were great,” Smith said. “They calmed me and explained what was going on, what would happen when we took off, and kept me informed and comfortable the whole way – even to the point of handing me an air sickness bag when I needed one despite the motion sickness medication they had given me. They couldn’t have been kinder or more professional.”

After being examined at VCU Medical Center, the doctor there confirmed that Smith had “only” experienced a severe panic attack. Her husband, who had driven there separately, then took her home; Smith did not have to spend a single night in the hospital.

Often in a situation like this there would be a risk of a second panic attack, not from medical conditions but as a result of the bill left for our patients by the lack of coverage from their insurance. But that wasn’t the case this time, because to her delight Smith found that emergency air transport is an in-network benefit on her health plan.

“Everything worked the way it should,” Smith said. “I received the explanation of benefits (EOB) and the bill within a couple of days of each other. Both showed that my health insurance picked up the bulk of the cost without question. My patient portion was a little more than $3,000, which I paid by credit card after calling Air Methods. The process couldn’t have gone more smoothly.”

Smith feels fortunate that everything worked out the way it did.

“This event could have been much more serious than it turned out to be,” she says. “Had it been a heart attack, given where I live, the availability of air transport could have meant the difference between me enjoying the long retirement my husband and I planned when we moved into this home and him being left alone. I am thankful that Air Methods was a covered benefit on my plan, and strongly believe it should be included in every health plan.”