COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Fifty years ago, a patient suffering a heart attack and needing to reach a hospital often was picked up by a funeral director driving a hearse.
Loaded into the narrow rear of the vehicle, the ailing patient took the slow and creepy trip to an emergency room without the benefit of medical care on the way. Worse still for the patient's peace of mind, if he died en route to the hospital, the undertaker was first in line to handle the burial.
"We thought it might be a conflict of interest," said Frank Mitchell, a retired University Hospital surgeon.
Things certainly have changed since then. From the region's first specially designed ambulance in 1968 at University Hospital to the first use of a helicopter to respond to medical emergencies in 1980 to an increasing emphasis on lifesaving techniques performed in the field by paramedics, Mitchell has pushed for better trauma care.
University Hospital has honored the 79-year-old with a ceremony to christen the Frank L. Mitchell Jr. M.D. Trauma Center. In a ceremony in the lobby, former colleagues and a horde of family members told stories about the man they call the "founding father" of trauma care in Mid-Missouri.
Mitchell, with characteristic modesty, deflected as much credit as possible.
"You really need to understand it's not me that's being honored. It's the institution and the people here," Mitchell said. "I just represent all these other people who contributed and did it all themselves."
A native of Excelsior Springs, Mitchell joined University Hospital in 1959 after spending two years as a surgeon in a 1,000-bed Army hospital in Germany. Treating victims of car wrecks and training mishaps, Mitchell noted the importance of quick intervention during a narrow window of time later termed the "golden hour."
So when he returned to Mid-Missouri after the Army, he was dismayed to find his home state still in the dark ages of trauma care. Aside from using hearses as ambulances -- commonplace across the country at the time -- there also was no organized system to ensure an operating room would be staffed 24 hours a day with a surgeon, nurse and anesthesiologist.
Mitchell pushed for a dedicated ambulance -- the first in Mid-Missouri was designed by engineering students -- and a radio system to let hospital staff know when a patient was en route. He also helped craft a standardized system of trauma care that would later be replicated across the country.
In 1974, Mitchell began the state's first paramedic training course. Don Stamper, one of the first 200 paramedics licensed in the state, recalled his former teacher's emphasis on aggressive lifesaving methods, such as using an endotracheal tube to open a blocked airway or starting an IV drip immediately.
"His theory was that even if you have all the hospitals and surgeons in the world, you can't save a patient that never arrives," Stamper said.
In 1980, Mitchell and others successfully petitioned the Missouri State Highway Patrol to allow University Hospital to use a helicopter to transport trauma patients from rural areas. After a two-year trial, results were so overwhelming that the University of Missouri Board of Curators approved the hospital to lease its own helicopter.
S. Page Neville, the first helicopter flight nurse, recalled her first white-knuckle ride from the Lake of the Ozarks to Columbia with a heart-attack patient. The flight shaved two hours off the transportation time, and the patient lived, Neville said, but the nurse's nerves were frayed.
"I actually quit after that flight. It was too stressful," she said. "But Dr. Mitchell convinced me to stay with it. He said, 'Come on, you can do this."'
A nurse anesthetist in the Army with three completed tours in Iraq, Neville credits Mitchell with teaching her to save lives.
But perhaps Mitchell's most far-reaching achievement was developing strict guidelines now used by the American College of Surgeons to "verify" trauma centers across the country. Mitchell, who served as the Verification Review Committee's first chairman from 1987 to 1996, helped develop standards to ensure things that now are taken for granted. For instance, a surgeon must respond to a trauma call within 15 minutes.
Erwin Thal, a professor of surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said the breadth of Mitchell's achievements is remarkable.
"In Dallas, if you want to get your name on a medical building, it will cost you $40 million," Thal said. "And yet Frank has put more than $40 million in a different sense. He is directly responsible for saving an untold number of lives. People who were dying at the roadside are now coming into hospitals."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)