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COLUMBIA - MU Health Care’s Life Helicopter Service celebrates 35 years of service to the critically ill through air medical transport.

“We want to be the extension of a physician’s hands,” said flight nurse Silvia Tribble. “If you’re in a remote, rural area of Missouri and have a farming accident, you’re three hours away from the nearest trauma center. Your odds of survival are slim, but that’s where the helicopter makes a difference.”

The MU Health Care System, in conjunction with the Air Methods Corporation, caters to Mid-Missouri with three helicopters located in Columbia, Osage Beach and La Monte, Missouri. MU’s Helicopter Service transports almost 600 people per year to MU’s University Hospital, one of four, level-one trauma centers in the entire state of Missouri. 

The flight program began as a trial with the Missouri State Highway Patrol in 1980 and was officially established as department of the MU Health Care System in 1982. This program attributes all of its to success to the late Dr. Frank Mitchell, a pioneering trauma surgeon with the MU Health System. As a former flight surgeon during the Vietnam War, Mitchell founded the University Hospital’s ground ambulance program before ambulances were even established as vehicles. Mitchell established a transport system for critically ill patients, a communications network for the health teams and training for nurses and paramedics. Today, his legacy lives on as it serves hundreds of Missouri residents from fatal illnesses every year.

Chief Flight Nurse Joan Drake believes the technological advancements of MU’s flying ambulances should be honored and celebrated. Drake has seen the evolution of these advancements first hand, as these emergency transportation vehicles have transformed from a “flying ambulance” in the mid-1990s, to a “flying ER” in the early 2000s. Today, she described the helicopters as a “flying ICU” ready to meet the needs of their patients on some of the worst days of their lives. "The fact that we get to be with them in that moment and hopefully do something to intervene to turn it into a positive direction is meaningful," she said.

Tribble said her department is the speed component of the success of patients. With training in pediatrics, heart attacks, strokes, critical care and trauma, Tribble believes it’s truly a privilege to have been well-versed in the medical field. “The training never stops. This is not a job that you can study enough to pass the test. You study and practice and study and practice until you cannot get it wrong because patient’s lives depend on you.”