August 26, 2015
This week, the Houston community, Texas A&M Aggie Family and State of Texas lost a legend, Dr. James Henry "Red" Duke. A world class trauma surgeon, founder of Life Flight, the John Wayne in scrubs, as a I called him, was an exceptional Texan. I was deeply saddened to hear about the loss of this good man, he will be profoundly missed. Below is a tribute I wrote about Dr. Red Duke back in 2012:
If you are from Houston, you know the name Dr. James “Red” Duke. His trademark bristly mustache, gold rimmed glasses, lanky Texas swagger and heavy twang are second only to his colorful personality. Dr. Duke is Texan to the core. When he’s not sporting his scrubs he can be seen in his well-worn cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He is the John Wayne in scrubs. Dr. Duke always has a colorful story to tell about medicine, places he’s been, and the people he’s come into contact with over the years. He is one of the most famous folks in his field because of his former TV series Bodywatch and his Texas Health Reports, which covered topics from fighting fat to skin cancer. Dr. “Red” Duke has the personality of an old fashioned country doctor that makes house calls but knows people and medicine like no one I have ever met.
Dr. Duke is somewhat of a phenomenon to foreigners (who don’t live in Texas) because of his simple straight shootin’ style. He is a world class surgeon trapped in a Texan’s body. People are drawn to him because he has the rare ability to put a complicated subject (medicine) into simple terms that everyone can understand. But don’t let him fool you, Dr. Duke may speak simply but his curriculum vitae is over 40 pages long. He has written over forty publications, eighteen textbook chapters and given almost six hundred lectures.
Dr. Red Duke’s humble nature comes from his small town roots and strong Southern Baptist upbringing in Ennis, Texas. Growing up in Central Texas, he had several paper routes, dug ditches, fished, picked cotton, and was a Boy Scout. Legend has it that it was during those days when he met another redhead young Texan — Willie Nelson. I happen to be Willie’s biggest fan. The two remain friends to this day. In fact, Red Duke is his doctor. He later graduated from Texas A&M, served in the Army in Germany, and then came back to Texas where he attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He soon realized his calling was medicine and got his degree from UT Southwestern Medical School and Columbia University. Once he became a surgeon he relocated to Afghanistan where he was the Attending Surgeon at Nangarhar University. He set up the surgery department and trained local physicians. Then he came back to Texas as fast as he could to join the University of Texas Medical School. And the rest is history.
While his colorful personality, wit, and knowledge have made Dr. Red Duke well-known, it is his achievements as a surgeon that has made him famous. He has made some remarkable strides in the medical field and within the Texas Medical Center. Dr. Duke was instrumental in establishing the trauma center at the Hermann Hospital, having served as one of its first chiefs of Trauma. He is perhaps most well-known as the brains behind the life-saving concept of using a helicopter as an ambulance. He came up with the Life Flight helicopter during his tenure as Chief of Trauma at Memorial Hermann.
I have been impressed by Dr. “Red” Duke since I first met him in the ‘80s. Back in my prior life, when I was a Judge in Harris County, he came to the Courthouse dressed in his scrubs to testify in my court on bullet trajectory. Then he went right back to the hospital. A few years later we teamed up as doctor and judge to teach high school students a lesson about drunk driving. Shattered Dreams — a program run through Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission sponsored an exercise that simulated a mock car crash. Fifteen students and teachers from Lutheran North High School in Houston were chosen to “die” in the crash. During the simulation they were even flown to Hermann hospital, and carried in a Hearse. Many students wept during this exercise as if it were real. This was a day at school they would never forget. Afterward there was an assembly to react to the reenactment. I spoke about cases where I saw young men on trial for the death of their girlfriends — the real victims of drunk driving. I pleaded (as I always do) for young girls never to get into a car with a boy who had been drinking just because they ‘like’ them. Dr. Duke’s stories were even more powerful. He spoke to the students about all of the people he had seen come into the hospital after a drunk driving accident — many of them left with life changing injuries, and many of them did not leave alive. Working with Dr. Red Duke to make those kids think twice about their decisions was a day I will never forget.
Dr. Duke is now 83 years young — but he has not stopped. He still works 12+ hour days saving lives at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Last week I had the opportunity to “shadow” him at the hospital. He led me on a tour around UT Health providing quirky anecdotes about his time there. He is constantly walking through the hospital halls visiting with patients and their family — I had a hard time keeping up with him. He sarcastically joked that sometimes they even still allow him to perform surgery and he spends a lot of time teaching the young residents who are just getting their feet wet in the operating room. He emphasized that his number one priority at the hospital is the safety of hospital patients and employees. As we walked through the halls of the Center I was impressed that he knew everyone we saw from the newest employee to the most senior doctors. He met each person with a “howdy” and asked them about their lives both in and out of the hospital. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
Dr. Duke is rumored to live at the hospital with his dog Jake that his daughter bought in the parking lot at Wal-Mart. Legend has it that he even removed a bullet from a shooting victim while he was wearing a tuxedo after attending a black tie event. His fierce dedication to the hospital, trauma patients, and the Texas Medical Center are unwavering. Houston is lucky to call Dr. “Red” Duke — the John Wayne in scrubs — our own. And that’s just the way it is.
Email me here to share your thoughts.
GOD and TEXAS,
Member of Congress