A few years ago, the EMS world was abuzz with stories about the restoration of Squad 51, the famous truck from the television show Emergency!. However, few know of Columbus, Ohio’s, own “Heartmobile,” and the story of its restoration.
The Heartmobile was the first mobile coronary care unit in the United States. The program was launched in April 1969 as a collaboration between the Ohio State University Hospital and the Columbus Division of Fire (CFD). The OSUH had taken part in a 1968 federal grant to study the outcome of patients who received prehospital cardiac arrest treatment. Hospital officials believed this program could save countless lives that would otherwise be lost due to a lack of treatment prior to arriving at the hospital.
The Heartmobile was incorporated into the CFD on July 1, 1970, and was originally staffed by three firefighters and a cardiac physician. It soon became apparent, however, that paramedics could provide advanced medical care without direct supervision of a physician.
After two years the Heartmobile was replaced by newer Horton ambulances. Historians continually inquired about saving it for a fire museum in Columbus, but were always turned down.
A new coat of paint made all the difference for the Heartmobile, as enduring the elements had left its body rusted and worn.
Retirement & Reassignment
After the Heartmobile’s retirement from emergency responses in 1972, it was gutted of all EMS equipment. The vehicle was repainted red and white, and benches and a desk were installed for use as a mobile minority recruiting station.
When recruiting personnel were finished with the Heartmobile, the Columbus Fire Honor Guard used it as a transport vehicle. It was then given to the CFD’s training division, where it was used to transport recruits to training sites and carry equipment to large fires.
Around 1985, the Heartmobile was officially retired from service with the CFD. It was declared surplus and parked outside the department’s shop for disposal by auction. Years of wear and tear had left the vehicle in deplorable shape. The body had rusted, the paint had faded and the lights on the roof were askew from repeated strikes against overhanging tree limbs scattered throughout Columbus’ neighborhoods.
At that time, most people didn’t know nor care about the Heartmobile—or its role in the history of American paramedicine. Only a few members of the CFD, who knew of the vehicle’s significance, had a desire to save it from a doomed fate as a painter’s van.
The driver’s cabin of the Heartmobile was gutted and cleaned before being outfitted with a new windshield and power steering.
An Anonymous Tip
A few weeks before the scheduled surplus auction, a mysterious call was made from someone in the fire department’s shop to Lt. Robert Throckmorton of CFD Station 2, who was the department historian and interested in saving the vehicle. He was told if they wanted to save the Heartmobile, now would be the time, and that a gate “may be unlocked if you wanted to get the Heartmobile out of here.”
Two firefighters drove to the shop after hours and found the gate unlocked. They enlisted the help of the night mechanic to jumpstart the Heartmobile, when it was “appropriated” and driven off into the night to be hidden—out of sight, out of mind. Over the years, the Heartmobile was stored in various fire stations around Columbus before ending up in CFD Station 28 in the late 1980s.
Volunteers replaced the ceiling within the patient compartment with new paneling.
Despite the updates, volunteers worked to recapture the interior’s original look and feel.
While at Station 28, it was taken to a local shop to have a factory-rebuilt engine installed. Bill Hall, a firefighter/paramedic as well as Central Ohio Fire Museum and Learning Center president, says at this time, legislation was written so the Central Ohio Fire Museum and Learning Center could officially—and legally—take possession of the vehicle. The Heartmobile now had a permanent home.
The Heartmobile was built on a 1968 Clark Cortez motor home chassis specially designed by the Dave Ellies Industrial Design Company and converted by Custom Coach. After many years of neglect and being shuffled around for storage, the Heartmobile had to undergo a major restoration. Because spare parts for Clark Cortez motor homes weren’t easy to find, the museum staff knew this would be a major undertaking.
In 2005, the interested parties, including Ohio State University Medical Center, began to hold meetings and plan fundraisers for the vehicle’s restoration. Hall spearheaded the effort. Hall and other volunteers gathered estimates for the restoration project.
Two body shops were interested. A Columbus-based company estimated the cost at $84,000 while a second company from Cleveland estimated the cost at $142,000. Both of these prices were too expensive, so in 2007, Hall and a group of volunteers began to meet on Wednesday nights to restore the old Cortez themselves. It was a slow process, but saved the museum a considerable amount of money over the next seven years.
Winter weather and heavy use of salt on roadways had ravaged the vehicle. Major rust issues on the body panels forced the volunteers to completely strip the vehicle down to its frame and replace its body panels. Other parts of the vehicle required less extensive repairs, such as the roof, nose, center body rail and doors—these are the only original body parts that remained.
The engine was removed and cleaned, as was the transaxle for the front wheel drive. The transmission was rebuilt, suspension unit was inspected and all worn parts were replaced. An exterior compartment was made and a generator was also added to the vehicle, allowing it to be deployed without the need of a shoreline.
While the Heartmobile was being stripped, a search began to find missing interior parts. The original ECG machine, owned by a local physician who was using it as a coffee table, was located and acquired. The original clock was also donated to the museum from Katie Sampson, a retired nurse from Phoenix and the paramedic instructor for the Heartmobile Project. The warning lights were removed and sent to John Dorgan in Tucson, Ariz., for restoration as well. Finding other missing parts proved to be impossible, but the volunteers were able to find suitable, period-correct replacements such as a reel-to-reel tape recorder, flow meters, defibrillator paddles and various other pieces to complete the interior.
Hall extensively searched for tires to replace the 40-year-old originals and discovered the oddball size was the same used on some low-profile semi-trailers. He ordered four tires, but it wasn’t until they were freshly mounted when he determined they were too wide and would rub on the suspension. After another search, a second set closer to the original tires’ width was found.
When time to install the windshield arrived, new gaskets had to be made to ensure it would fit properly because the window opening was now .25 inches shorter than before, due to the roof being removed for repair.
The Heartmobile was equipped with a hospital-style operating table in the patient area. However, the table had a broken coupler, which is responsible for controlling the height of the head of the table. The broken piece had to be sent to a machine shop to be fabricated, as replacement parts for the table haven’t been available for at least 35 years.
A hospital-style operating table was installed after its coupler, a piece responsible for controlling the height of the head of the table, was fabricated and replaced.
The final step of the resoration is the assembly of interior compartments to their original configuration.
Project Funding & Support
Hall, along with other restoration team members, approached local businesses for donations of parts or labor and found most were happy to help the cause. Sutphen Fire Apparatus made custom compartment doors and provided the door seals.
Other local businesses contributed by rebuilding power steering components, making new glass windows, donating flooring material and providing tools and equipment needed to perform the restoration.
Mr. Big Stuff Auto Body in Orient, Ohio, was chosen to paint the Heartmobile back to its original gold and cream colors. The body shop, owned by a brother of a CFD lieutenant, did the paint at a greatly discounted rate. With the exterior completely restored, the final step in the process was the assembly of the interior compartments to their original configuration.
To date, donations to the project have totaled about $78,400, including “in kind” donations of start-up materials such as brochure printing, mass mailings, website design and a video digitization of the film “Life on the Line,” a 1972 film about the Heartmobile Project, by Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
In addition to the restoration of the original colors and new paneling, the Heartmobile was equipped with a backup generator to be deployed without the need for a shoreline.
Almost Ready to Roll Again
The completion of the Heartmobile is on schedule for spring 2015. After making appearances around the Central Ohio area, there is a possibility the Heartmobile will go on a national tour. Hall said the decision to tour the nation would be discussed with officials at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to determine the feasibility and cost.
For more information on the Heartmobile and to see more photos, visit www.heartmobile.org.