Forty years ago, Houston’s first air ambulance lifted off from the rooftop of Hermann Hospital.
James “Red” Duke, M.D., the late, legendary founder of Memorial Hermann’s Life Flight program, knew from his military training that nothing was more precious than time when caring for patients in a trauma setting.
“When you look at Houston and Harris County geographically, the way it has grown and the way it was built to begin with, it is 50 miles wide one way and very spread out,” said Tom Flanagan, Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. “When you look at trying to get patients care in a timely manner when it comes to cardiac, stroke victims and trauma patients, time is of the essence.”
Life Flight began in 1976 with one aircraft. On each trip, a nurse, a resident and a pilot were sent out to receive and stabilize a patient, and then bring the patient back to the Texas Medical Center for treatment. In the beginning, Duke and his staff anticipated the helicopter would be used 10 or 15 times each month. In the very first month, the air ambulance received 50 requests for its services.
Flanagan worked as a flight nurse with Life Flight for 23 years before assuming the role of Chief Flight Nurse and program director.
“I got to watch the growth of the program and see how we have added technology to see the aircrafts and the difference the technology has made,” he said. “We have increased the speed at which we can travel and that has improved the outcomes for our patients.”
The helicopters are now equipped with devices that allow Life Flight staff to perform ultrasounds, and staff also have the ability to administer blood. But perhaps the biggest change since the early days: aircraft can accommodate two patients at a time.
“The ability to double-load and bring two patients at one time back to the hospital makes a huge difference,” said Joseph Love, M.D., Medical Director of Life Flight & Assistant Professor of Surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “Having more space in the helicopters also allows us to do some of the more advanced trips, for example a patient on a balloon pump or an ECMO machine [which pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood, giving the heart and lungs a rest]. We tend to focus a lot on the trauma side of what Life Flight can do, but the enormity of what we do and the scope of what we practice is very broad. We can take very complex patients and bring them to the medical center.”
Today, Life Flight retrieves critically ill and injured patients from a 150-mile radius that includes Houston, Harris County, southeast Texas and parts of western Louisiana. The fleet now consists of six aircrafts operated by 21 pilots, 21 flight nurses, 18 paramedics and dispatchers and eight mechanics. The program runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In all, Life Flight has flown more than 140,000 missions.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the program and the first year without Duke, who passed away in August 2015.
To celebrate the anniversary, Memorial Hermann launched a campaign of gratitude to say thank you to the community. The hospital also unveiled commemorative patches and logo decals for the pilots and aircrafts in August.
“Red was a good friend and mentor of mine,” Love said. “Here we are one year later and we’re still doing fine.