Remembering Our Dr. Duke

As Eric von Wenckstern browsed Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center’s newest gallery display, he said, “Wow, it’s great to hear his voice again.”

The voice von Wenckstern referred to was that of the late UTHealth trauma surgeon, Dr. James H. “Red” Duke, Jr.  A video showcasing highlights of Dr. Duke’s nationally syndicated news program, Texas Health Reports, repeats throughout the day in the newest Rick Smith Gallery installation, located in the main atrium of Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.


The eighth installment in the gallery is titled “Our Dr. Duke,” and features stories from some of Dr. Duke’s closest friends and colleagues in the Texas Medical Center who walked the hospital’s hallways with him every day. Also included in the exhibit are photographs and memorabilia from his legendary life that are as rich as the tales told in his memory.

Eric von Wenckstern is the administrative director of Memorial Hermann Life Flight®, the program which Dr. Duke was instrumental in developing. One of von Wenckstern’s own personal stories about Dr. Duke is displayed in the gallery. In the story, von Wenckstern, a Life Flight pilot, recalls some incoming bad weather due to an approaching hurricane in 1983. The storm was bad enough that the aircraft needed to be evacuated to a hangar in Spring, Texas. Before evacuating, von Wenckstern wanted to accept a flight to pick up the victim of a shooting in Pearland. When the resident on duty refused to fly due to the weather, Dr. Duke trusted von Wenckstern’s judgment and flew with him to the scene.  A snippet reads:

“The next day, after retrieving the aircraft in Spring, I flew to Galveston with a mechanic to see how our aircraft at UTMB had fared. The devastation along the way was impactful, but not as impactful as the lasting impression Dr. Duke left on me that day in August. He understood that Life Flight provided a service and somebody needed our help. He never doubted that we could make a difference that day, and every day…and I will never forget that.”

The story is posted alongside a portrait of a Life Flight helicopter. Following Dr. Duke’s death, Memorial Hermann and UTHealth employees were invited to fill in the portrait with their red thumb prints, leaving their mark on the canvas just as Dr. Duke had left his mark on all of them.


The Rick Smith Gallery was created in memory of Rick Smith, the late director of Chaplaincy Services at Memorial Hermann-TMC. Smith understood the importance of healing the body, mind and soul. It is open to all employees, patients and visitors, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The exhibit’s grand opening coincides with the 40th anniversary of Memorial Hermann Life Flight®, a milestone the program celebrated on Aug. 1. Dr. Duke was crucial in developing Life Flight, Texas’ first lifesaving air ambulance service, and served as medical director of the program for nearly 40 years. In order to express gratitude to the city that helped make the lifesaving air ambulance service possible, Memorial Hermann launched a “40 Years of Life Flight, 40 Days of Thanks” campaign to celebrate Life Flight’s trailblazing history.

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The week also marks one year since Dr. Duke passed away on Aug. 25, 2015, at the age of 86. As the John B. Holmes Professor of Clinical Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, he was a dedicated physician who was known for his extraordinary patient care and efforts to teach medical students and surgeons. Dr. Duke was instrumental in establishing trauma services at Memorial Hermann-TMC and transforming trauma care, not just for the city of Houston but for the entire country. Earlier this year, the Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute was renamed the Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute in his honor.

On the one year anniversary of Dr. Duke’s death, Memorial Hermann-TMC hosted a Life Flight 40th Anniversary event for employees and special guests, where a bust of Dr. Duke was unveiled for the very first time. The bust is a result of an employee campaign titled “The Dr. Red Duke Tribute Project.” As part of the Memorial Hermann-TMC campus’ Breaking New Ground expansion project, the helipad and Life Flight operations will be relocated to the new patient care tower in a few years. The bust will join a wall of historical achievements which will welcome visitors to the new Life Flight lobby area. Until such time, the bust will live in the Hermann atrium, near the entrance to the pediatric emergency center.


Dr. Duke’s legacy continues through the thousands he taught and cared for throughout his career. Click here to read more about the intimate stories shared in the latest exhibit.


  1. My name is Tracy Archer and I met Dr. Duke in April of 1983 when I was involved in a spectacular one-car accident on Highway six before Westheimer. I have no memory of the accident or hours prior to it (about 4), lost forever due to impact and head trauma. The ambulance cancelled by HPD and Lifeflight contacted as the Firemen worked to get me untangled from my vehicle. It took nearly an hour and I was critical. All lanes on Highway 6 shut down while Lifeflight landed to take me into (then) Herman Hospital.
    Dr. Duke was on call that night and Dr. Thomas Clanton – the team met Lifeflight on the helipad. Dr. Duke worked to stop the bleeding from internal injuries sustained from the impact. My liver burst and Dr. “RED” Duke was the miracle Doctor who save a 23-year-old young woman from death. I had many more injuries that April night that were non-life threating. Dr. Thomas Clanton set my left leg, put me in traction and sewed up a gaping hole due to a compound fracture. Dr. Clanton later added the femoral nail and screws five weeks later.
    I was under their EXCELLANT care after more than 8 hours of surgeries to put a broken body back together, first in Trauma ICU to the ICU, Trauma Unit where recovery and care was excellent – Dr. Duke literally saved my life that night. I remember him coming in and out of my room in the Trauma Unit checking on me at odd hours for weeks and telling me that I was lucky to be alive. I had no idea at the time just how lucky.
    Dr. Red Duke is the GOD FATHER of Mash Trauma. I am one life saved because of his experiences in Vietnam and his vision of life saving techniques. Thank you Dr. “Red” Duke – rest in peace and job well done.


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Tashika Varma