Columbia, Mo. Fifty years ago, a patient suffering a heart attack often was picked up by a funeral director driving a hearse.
Loaded into the narrow rear of the vehicle, the patient took the slow, creepy trip to an emergency room without medical care on the way. If the patient died en route, 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 have changed since then. From the region’s first specially designed ambulance in 1968 at University Hospital 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, former colleagues and a horde of family members told stories about the man they call the “founding father” of trauma care in Mid-Missouri.
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. He pushed for a dedicated ambulance 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. 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.
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.
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.
“He is directly responsible for saving an untold number of lives,” he said.