Life Flight nurse Shelley White pulled a stretcher over shards of broken glass that littered the pavement between a silver Hyundai Sonata and black Oldsmobile Cutlass, both of which had crumpled like aluminum cans in a head-on collision on West-heimer during a recent rush hour.
Houston firefighters already had pulled 50-year-old John Ryan from one of the cars and fitted him with a neck brace. He clutched his bloodstained hands over his chest as HFD medics stabilized his nearly severed right ankle. A bone protruded from the torn flesh.
Within minutes, White had hooked Ryan up to a portable monitor and wheeled him to a Life Flight helicopter waiting a few dozen yards up the road.
"What's happening?" Ryan asked.
White told him they were boarding a Life Flight helicopter to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston.
"I hope I don't get sick," Ryan said, his face pale.
"I think that's the least of your worries right now," White replied.
"Will you hold my hand?" Ryan asked.
Hand-holding isn't an unusual request for Houston's Life Flight crews. The few critical minutes they're in the air with a patient often are the most terrifying of that person's life.
"It's almost like an infant or a child. They look to their parents to see how they're supposed to respond and react," White said. "And when patients don't know what's happening to them, they look to you."
Second in Nation
This month marks the 35th anniversary of Houston's Life Flight, a pioneering air ambulance service at Memorial Hermann that transports critically injured and ill patients by helicopter.
It was the first such service in Texas and the second in the nation.
"Nobody knew whether it was going to work or not," said Dr. James "Red" Duke, who started Life Flight in August 1976 with Lester "Whitey" Martin, former Houston Fire Department deputy chief.
Life Flight flew 45 missions that first month with a single Alouette helicopter. The command center was a red telephone on the triage desk in the emergency room.
Now Life Flight's fleet of six state-of-the-art Eurocopter EC145 aircraft averages 10 rescues a day within a 150-mile radius of Houston, making the John S. Dunn Helipad at Memorial Hermann one of the busiest hospital helipads in the U.S.
Each helicopter can carry two patients and a pilot, nurse and paramedic. The aircraft are outfitted with cutting-edge technology, including night-vision goggles, sonograms and wireless vital monitoring systems that send patient updates to the ER before the helicopter even lands.
The average mission takes 42 minutes from the time a Life Flight crew gets a call to the time they return to the hospital with the patient, the faster the better.
"If you get a person to an appropriate level of care facility within the first 60 minutes, it decreases their mortality rate by 80 percent," said Eric von Wenckstern, administrative director of Life Flight.
One night this month, a Life Flight crew picked up a man who had been stabbed at least 14 times in the chest at an apartment complex south of Houston.
The man was still conscious on the helicopter, but flight nurses Melissa Kendrick and Eddie Esparza could see his injuries were so severe that he might go into cardiac arrest at any moment. They made the decision in the air to put him to sleep with medication and insert a breathing tube.
The man's pulse stopped two minutes after his arrival in the ER at Memorial Hermann. Doctors decided to open his chest, exposing his heart and lungs. Kendrick and Esparza watched from the door.
"No blood in there," someone said. "No cardiac activity."
"OK, let's go ahead and do an internal massage," a doctor said. A gloved hand began manually pumping the man's heart.
"Compress for one minute then we'll recheck."
The ER team found multiple holes in the man's heart. Before long, they had plugged the holes and stabilized the man enough to move him to the operating room.
Kendrick and Esparza returned to the helipad to repack their emergency gear and prep the stretcher for the next patient.
"If he was going to have a chance, he had it tonight," Kendrick said.
"This is a prime example of why Life Flight's important, to be able to move somebody quickly," she said. "It would have taken about 30 minutes to drive him here from where he was. For us, it took us about seven minutes."
Kendrick left on her next call before she could find out if the stabbing victim had survived. He didn't.
Injuries on Interstate
Ross McLauchlan was 16 when he was thrown from a GMC Yukon XL that rolled over on I-45 near Huntsville in July 2005. McLauchlan ended up pinned underneath the vehicle.
"I realize I'm alive, I realize I'm stuck, and I'm on fire, and I'm trapped, and I start panicking," McLauchlan said.
He had broken his pelvis, separated his spine and collapsed a lung. McLauchlan also suffered a concussion and burns over 15 percent of his body.
Bystanders pulled him out from under the Yukon, but he could tell how bad he looked from the horrified expressions on their faces, and the way their voices shook.
"All I could think of was, 'We're so far away,' " McLauchlan recalled. " 'No one's going to be able to help us. We're so far away from a hospital.' "
It would have taken a ground ambulance an hour and 45 minutes to get McLauchlan to the ER at Memorial Hermann. Life Flight flew him there in 20 minutes.
Aboard the helicopter, the paramedic and nurse were so calm and deliberate that McLauchlan calmed down, too. He remembers one of them wiped the blood from his broken nose to help him breathe.
"They were just gentle, like a mom wiping a little kid's nose," he said.
For the first time, McLauchlan thought he might be OK.
"These guys, they were just super, super professional," he said. "It was just another day at work for them. There's just a sense of serenity that comes over you: 'OK, these guys have got me in a helicopter. I'm going back to Houston. I'm going to a hospital.'"
He went on to graduate from University of Texas in Austin, where he played club soccer and lacrosse. To see him now, you'd never guess the severity of the injuries he suffered. He credits Life Flight.
"That helicopter ride is where the recovery started," McLauchlan said.