Life Flight, and the surgeon known as 'the grandfather of trauma'

Houston's Life Flight celebrates 40 years of operation

By Dane Schiller
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — At a time when Houston didn't even have an official ambulance system, the idea of medical helicopters swooping into urban mayhem and whisking away patients fighting for their lives might have seemed impossible.

But Army veteran and trauma surgeon Dr. James "Red" Duke knew military helicopters saved lives on the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam, and he wanted to bolster survival rates by getting civilians who had been shot, stabbed or in car accidents to a hospital as quickly as possible.

Now, 40 years after that first flight took to the air on Aug. 1, 1976, Memorial Hermann Life Flight has notched more than 150,000 missions. It has served as a model for programs across the country, been portrayed in three television shows - including a docudrama - and helped train NASA astronauts.

"In the '50s and '60s, you got to the hospital either by private car, a taxi or they came by a hearse driven by a funeral home driver who knew nothing about live people," Duke, who died in 2015, said in a documentary prepared by the hospital.

"If you shortened the time between the incident and definitive intervention, you got a better chance, and that concept still applies," he said.

Duke, who was born in Ennis and grew up in nearby Hillsboro, went on to become a Houston medical icon known not only for his bushy moustache and round glasses but also for his passion, demand for excellence and down-to-earth manner.

In 1963, as a surgical resident, Duke was in the emergency room at Dallas' Parkland Hospital when President John F. Kennedy was shot, and he helped tend to wounded Texas Gov. John B. Connally. He later spent two years in Afghanistan as a professor before joining the University of Texas Medical School in Houston as a professor of surgery in 1972.

It was there, in the mid-1970s, that he began studying - along with Deputy Houston Fire Chief Lester "Whitey" Martin - the nation's first air ambulance program in Denver.

Life Flight began with one helicopter, which was built on 1950s technology and carried all the lifesaving equipment that could fit in a single medical bag.

By 1987, Houston would be home to the largest civilian air rescue program in the United States and was making a name nationwide.

Today, a fleet of six Eurocopter EC-145 twin-engine helicopters fly within a 150-mile radius of the Texas Medical Center - a reach that includes not only all of Houston, but pulls in Austin, Corpus Christi and parts of Louisiana. One of the busiest private heliports in the world is perched atop the hospital on the northern edge of the Medical Center.

The Life Flight aircraft, all painted red, have an average cruising speed of 150 mph, and have the instrumentation for pilots to zip into weather so soupy they can't see through it.

They fly around the clock in what is known as the Golden Hour - the crucial 60 minutes following a traumatic injury during which a person's survival rate is about 80 percent if they can reach proper care.

The EC-145s are considered state-of-the-art. They have two engines, two navigation systems and two autopilot systems - each a backup in the name of safety.

They can carry two patients at a time, along with a paramedic, a flight nurse and a pilot. In many ways, they are mini-emergency rooms in the sky. Blood products and oxygen can be administered. An ultrasound check can be used to determine if a person has internal bleeding.

It is up to first responders at the scene to decide if Life Flight is needed.

"Every flight is unique - you don't know what to expect, what the patient will be like," said Eric von Wenckstern, who started with Life Flight nearly 35 years ago as a pilot and is now administrative director. "There are very few flights that are textbook."

In addition to handling weather and navigation challenges, Life Flight helicopters have touched down in fields, parking lots and in the middle of interstates packed with rush-hour motorists.

Von Wenckstern recalled Duke's advice: "We didn't shoot 'em. We didn't stab 'em. We didn't tell them to drink that alcohol and get in their car and crash into a pole, so if you don't think it is safe, don't go."

Countless stories of humanity have rolled across the floors, and the walls preserve the rich history.

"You have in me a friend for life of Life Flight along with my sincere gratitude," states a framed letter from Rodney Meadows, a Conroe police officer whose cruiser was hit by a stolen vehicle on July 24, 1981.

"Thank you, Life Flight," reads a plaque, "from the Family of Chris W. Helton."

Helton's father, John Helton, said it was 1981 when he got a phone call from Duke himself telling him that his son had been in a motorcycle accident on Highway 146 near Baytown. Life Flight saved his son's life, Helton said. "He wouldn't have made it," Helton said.

There's also a salute to Life Flight's darkest day - July 17, 1999, when a helicopter carrying a crew crashed just outside Houston while landing for refueling. The crash was caused by a defective part that caused the main rotor blade to detach.

There was no patient aboard during the crash, but the three crew members were killed. A large bouquet marking the anniversary sits beside photos of pilot John Pittman, flight nurse Lynn Etheridge and paramedic Charles "Mack" Atteberry. It is a sacred place.

Tom Flanagan, chief operating officer at Memorial Hermann-The Texas Medical Center, said Life Flight has been a pioneer in the air medical industry, helping establish nationwide standards for safety in terms of when to fly and when not to fly, and how to keep patients and crew safe.

"We look at (Duke) as the grandfather of trauma," Flanagan said. "He moved trauma care in this country to something no one ever anticipated or expected."

Duke went on to become a television personality, with the syndicated "Dr. Red Duke Texas Health Reports" and as the inspiration for the TV series "Buck James" with actor Dennis Weaver.

Duke's daughter, Sarah Duke, said that her father gave Life Flight his all but never sought to take credit from anyone else. She recalled how even when he was sick and living in her home, he used Skype to sit in on Life Flight meetings, she said.

"I've heard him say over the years it took a lot of people to make it happen," she said. "He was the one at the beginning and he was pushing the idea of how to get people to medical care more quickly and effectively."

Copyright 2016 the Houston Chronicle

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