Some meetings change your life forever.
That was what happened to me on a Thursday afternoon, if memory serves, in April of 1976.
I had been summoned to a meeting with my boss, the Executive Director of Hermann Hospital. When I arrived, seated around the conference table, was my boss all of two months, the Chief of the fire department ambulance service, Dr. James H. “Red” Duke, Jr., famed trauma surgeon, and two clean-cut guys I did not recognize. Judging by their haircuts and eyewear I theorized that they were couple of military pilots who wondered in from the rain and humidity that is common in Houston.
I was the still-wet-behind-the ears Director of Community Relations after a career as an editor and crime writer for The Houston Post. My new boss, William F. Smith, never one to waste time – he was brimming with creative ideas – announced that he was thinking about starting a helicopter ambulance service at Hermann.
Stunned would be an understatement of my initial reaction.
Just as I arrived to start my new career in PR, I had helped manage the release of news that Hermann, once the premier private hospital, had laid off 400 employees because of financial problems. A couple of years prior Hermann had affiliated with the newly created University of Texas Medical School at Houston and the resulting town and gown split nearly killed the flagship hospital of the Texas Medical Center.
Financial problems, layoffs, a lot of negative press and we were going to do what? I could not believe it!
I learned, after the fact, that while it might be OK to tell the city editor of a newspaper that he was crazy, telling your new boss was not exactly a good way to get started in the corporate world.
Bill Smith was not going to be deterred. He knew of Flight for Life’s success in Denver and argued that Houston’s rapidly expanding metro population and legendary traffic jams created an ideal opportunity. He was going to seize the moment.
And he did just that with enormous flare. On the day the Hermann board was meeting in a private dining room on the 44th floor of the Exxon Building in downtown Houston, Smith arranged for the helicopter company, Rocky Mountain Helicopters, to paint Hermann Hospital on the side of a demo helicopter and fly it around the glass tower. And that was that. The stunned board approved a three-month trial contract. Little did they know that Bill Smith had no intention of failing. He was betting the bank. Boy was he ever on target.
Yes, I was initially skeptical but after visiting Rocky’s Flight for Life operations at Denver’s St. Anthony Hospital, I saw firsthand what Bill had seen in his mind’s eye.
My involvement in this iconic program was not made known with a great press announcement and fanfare. Far from it.
I was walking down the hall to a meeting in the auditorium, minding my own business. Bill was in the hall, cornered by the Chief of Neonatology, a man widely known for effective bullying to get what he wanted. Smith, who chewed on cigars – if you noticed it getting shorter in a meeting that was not a good sign – saw me coming. His cigar was getting shorter by the second. As I passed the two men, the Neonatologist said, “I don’t understand why you are doing that silly helicopter service. We don’t have the resources for that. My unit is already full 99 percent of the time. Besides, you don’t have anyone to run it.”
Bill caught my eye and then said with great force, “John Self is going to run it and he is going to sink or swim with it.”
Life Flight – we ran a radio contest to name the service and a nurse at a competing medical center hospital submitted the winning entry – was not my idea. I have never taken credit for that. But I was the first director, I created the marketing strategy and lived and breathed the program for a year. Then I joined Rocky Mountain as the national marketing manager and sold the next 13 programs nationally.
Over the past 37 years, Life Flight has saved thousands of lives. Today it is one of the largest and most successful hospital-based helicopter transport systems in the country. To be honest, my accomplishments, when compared with the whole of the program’s success, might fill the top of a pin, but to this day it remains one of my proudest accomplishments.
Thank you Bill. You changed my life.