(TNS) - As recently as the 1960s, a patient being rushed to the hospital with crushing chest pain would be treated en route only with sirens and sympathy.

Alarmed by high death rates and encouraged by new technology, a small group of pioneering physicians started equipping ambulances with defibrillators and paramedics who knew how to use them. Although today the idea seems straightforward, it was a radical departure from established protocols and was credited with saving countless lives.

"What it all means is that if you have any regard for your health and are over 40, you ought to move to Los Angeles," Dr. Walter S. Graf told the Los Angeles Times in 1978. "Your chances for avoiding sudden death are enhanced."

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Graf, a cardiologist who helped establish the modern system of paramedic emergency care, died Oct. 18 at his Los Angeles home, family members said. He was 98.

In 1969, Graf converted a white Chevy van into a "mobile critical care unit." The idea was to speed to heart attack calls with a hospital nurse and a portable defibrillator.

Later, training was expanded to include firefighters and emergency medical technicians -- groups that, according to Graf's studies, performed just as well as nurses at saving cardiac patients.

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"It's easy to take for granted the incredibly elaborate, sophisticated EMS system that we have today, but just 50 years ago, it did not exist," Dr. Clayton Kazan, the medical director for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said in a statement. "While ambulance transportation existed, virtually no medical care was provided until the patient arrived at the hospital."

Graf's "Heart Car" -- named for its Heart Emergency Assistance Response Team -- helped spark "a movement that has been responsible for saving innumerable lives worldwide," Kazan said.

Born in New York City on July 15, 1917, Graf grew up in the Bronx, the son of a jewelry designer for high-end stores like Tiffany & Co. He attended the City College of New York.

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Graf received his medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, in 1942. He served as an Army physician in Europe and North Africa. Graf also taught medicine at the University of Southern California and Loma Linda University.

Graf's survivors include his wife, Joan; nine children and stepchildren; 19 grandchildren; and 22 great-grandchildren.