Murray, Utah (7/14/2008) — The first thing that went through Ralph Evans' mind when he was shot in the back and neck 30 years ago was his wife and four children.
"I said out loud, 'Please, Lord, don't let me die,'" recalls Evans, a former Utah Highway Patrol trooper whose carotid artery was severed by a bullet from a drunken teenager's gun during a routine traffic stop.
But luck - and timing - were on his side. A passing Air Force surgeon stopped within seconds and clamped a hand over Evans' artery to stem the bleeding from his neck. Minutes later, after he was driven by ambulance to a small hospital, rescue came from the sky: an Intermountain Life Flight helicopter picked him up and carried him to LDS Hospital's trauma center.
Evans was among the earliest patients transported via medical helicopter in Utah, less than three months after Intermountain Life Flight began operation on July 6, 1978 - the seventh dedicated helicopter service in the nation and the first in the state of Utah.
This month, Intermountain Healthcare's Life Flight air medical transport fleet celebrates 30 years of saving lives - one of the longest histories of service in the nation.
Since its launch, Life Flight has transported nearly 62,000 critically-ill or injured people over 7.4 million miles. Currently, Life Flight averages more than 10 patients a day, of which half are children.
Patient Rhea Schomaker, a young mother who was badly injured in a head-on traffic wreck that also involved her baby girl, recalls regaining consciousness after the accident and being hysterical with concern about what had happened to her baby: "The Life Flight nurse came and held my face and looked in my eyes and told me that my daughter was okay," she says tearfully. "She had a kindness in her eyes and a soothing quality to her voice that comforted me...I'm just so grateful for these people who risk their lives every time they take off to rescue people who can't rescue themselves, to deliver them to safety."
Today, Life Flight has grown to include three airplanes and four helicopters. The helicopters are designed to handle high-altitude flights as well as maneuver in Utah's rugged terrain and extreme climate. The airplanes, which travel up to 325 mph, routinely travel throughout the Intermountain West.
Life Flight is the first and only civilian air ambulance service in the nation to perform hoist rescues and the first in Utah to be certified to fly helicopters with high-tech night-vision goggles.
The Intermountain Life Flight service has aircraft and flight crews who are stationed 24 hours a day, seven days a week at McKay Dee Hospital, Primary Children Medical Center, Intermountain Medical Center, Utah Valley Regional Medical Center and Dixie Regional Medical Center.
Intermountain Healthcare owns and operates its fleet of aircraft and employ's more than 200 dedicated, highly trained aviation and health care professionals.
"It's been tremendously gratifying to be a part of this service," says William Butts, a former Life Flight helicopter pilot and the program's current director of operations. "Flying in Utah is every bit as challenging as my years in the Army, but this job has amazing perks. To be able to take a sick baby from her parents' arms and deliver her safely to a physician is an incredible feeling. Taking a person from the scene of a life-threatening accident to a hospital where someone will save their life - there just isn't a more rewarding job in the world."
Evans, the former UHP trooper, is among the thousands of patients who are grateful that the idea ever got off the ground.
KD Simpson, a paramedic who was on the scene of the shooting, says Evans might not have survived if he'd been shot a year earlier - before Life Flight began its program.
"He had a terrible injury. They had to get him to a vascular surgeon right away," says Simpson, who now serves as customer service coordinator for Life Flight. "We didn't have the roads then that we have today, and getting him to a trauma center quickly would have been a real challenge."
Evans remembers well his two rides that day: first in an ambulance to a small hospital, and then in a helicopter to the surgeons at LDS Hospital.
"That ride was as smooth as butter," he recalls of the flight. "I felt every pebble on the road during the ambulance ride. But the helicopter was just smooth and wonderful. If you're ever critically ill, Life Flight is the way to go."