Emergency & Trauma

July 10, 2024

The LifeFlight legacy: 40 years in 40 photos

Since July 1984, LifeFlight has made 76,942 flights and transported 80,118 patients. It’s transported another 37,133 patients since its ground transport program began; critical care ground transports number 4,188.

This is the ever-expanding legacy: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, children and grandparents — alive. Explore an audio clip, map and more.

Minutes saved are lives saved.  

July 5, 1984, marked a major change in trauma care in Middle Tennessee. Before Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s LifeFlight program launched on that date, people who were severely injured anywhere in the small towns, farmland and rolling hills of the region had to travel to Nashville by ground to access sophisticated trauma care. At that time, there was no state-organized trauma system (that didn’t come until 1988), so which patients were selected for transport was not uniformly defined.

John Morris, MD, the first director of Vanderbilt LifeFlight, talks to Craig Boerner, about how they started training, the ‘golden hour’ of care, one thing LifeFlight won’t do again, and the legacy that’s dearest to Morris. 

Shortly after the program began, a paramedic in rural Clay County, Tennessee, noted that the helicopter could get a badly injured patient to Nashville in 32 minutes, while a ground ambulance would take up to an hour and 45 minutes.  

But even more than that, because LifeFlight helicopters are basically intensive care units that fly, staffed by some of the most knowledgeable trauma clinicians available, they are not just bringing the patient to the hospital, they are bringing the hospital to the patient. 

See its different patches. 

The result is clear: There are now thousands of people living in LifeFlight’s coverage area who would otherwise have died.  

The early days of the program were not always easy. Before the first flight could take off, years of dreaming and planning had to happen. The unglamorous work of permits and vendor selection and neighborhood meetings and governmental approval all had to take place. 

The first helicopter had room for only one patient along with two flight nurses in the back and a pilot up front.

A helicopter large enough to carry two patients was added in 1986. 

LifeFlight’s first helipad was located on the south end of the VUH Plaza, approximately where the Courtyard Café is now (The Vanderbilt Clinic hadn’t been built yet). For a few months, when TVC construction began, flights would land at a Vanderbilt athletic field, and the patients were transported the final couple of blocks by a waiting ambulance — LifeFlight’s first dedicated ground transport.  

Jeanne Yeatman, MBA, MOM, RN, CMTE, EMT, has been named interim chief nursing officer of VWCH.

 I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of that incredible team as both a clinician and a leader during a significant time in the program’s beginning and growth. Being a part of the transition of Vanderbilt LifeFlight from one aircraft to a world-class comprehensive emergency medical services provider was an honor and a privilege. 

Jeanne Yeatman, MBA, BSN, CMTE, EMT,  
Chief Nursing Officer 
Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital 

The construction of TVC added a fourth-floor rooftop twin helipad, which opened in 1985. The helipad included a dedicated elevator to the Emergency Department.   

The Skyport on the roof of VUH opened in 2000, with a helipad communications center and program offices.  

But the location of the helipad was not the most notable change going on as the years went by. 

As the number of trauma flights grew, VUMC’s programs responded by growing to meet the needs of the region’s trauma victims. This meant upgrading the Emergency Department, adding to the trauma service and the eventual establishment of Emergency Medicine in 1992, the opening of a dedicated Trauma Unit in VUH in 1998, and that same year adding a Pediatric Emergency Department.  

Paramedic Michael Atwood looks at the Nashville skyline while working the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in August 2023. (photo by Alyssa Smith)
  • LifeFlight added a second helicopter, LifeFlight 2, in 1998, as the volume of calls exceeded the capacity of a single craft. Beginning in 2000, LifeFlight 2 was based at Bedford County General Hospital. This was the first of the program’s bases away from VUMC’s main campus. 
  • LifeFlight now has nine helicopters, 28 advanced life support ambulances and four critical care ambulances.

Additional air and ground bases have been established over LifeFlight’s coverage area in order to reach critically injured patients even more quickly.

A journey worth telling

Throughout the decades and the changes they have brought, VUMC’s News and Communications office has covered the LifeFlight program and its people. 

That coverage began before the first flight took place with coverage of the coming helicopter in the Medical Center’s newspaper at the time, MedCom — and continued with every change and advance as the program grew. 

In 1988, the Medical Center’s monthly employee feature magazine, House Organ, published numerous articles in a special issue, “Portrait of LifeFlight,” that included the minute-by-minute chronicle of a trauma flight, as well as other stories about the program.  (Explore the issue embedded below.)

Along the way, the program and its people have amassed numerous national recognitions and accolades, including being named the 2020 Association of Air Medical Services Program of the Year

Since that July day in 1984, LifeFlight has made 76,942 flights and has transported 80,118 patients. 

Since its ground transport program began, it has transported 37,133 patients. Critical care ground transports number 4,188. 

This is the ever-expanding legacy: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, children and grandparents — alive. •

Read a 1988 magazine issue dedicated to LifeFlight.