Oct 6, 2010
At 12:08 a.m. Aug. 15, Damien Turner was shot in the back. Ten minutes later he was hurtling up South Lake Shore Drive in the back of an ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he died 10 miles from where he was shot at the corner of East 61st Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue — less than four blocks from the University of Chicago’s hospital.
“I’m not going to bury my head and let his memory die away,” said his mother, Shelia Rush, at a rally Sept. 28 in front of the university’s hospital, vowing to work toward opening a trauma center on the South Side that could have treated her 18-year-old son.
Rush, surrounded by dozens of supporters from the community organization her son founded, Fearless Leadership by the Youth, called on the university to reopen its long-shuttered trauma center.
Since 1989 when the university and Michael Reese Hospital closed their trauma centers, residents of the South Side, including Hyde Park, live in the only neighborhoods in Chicago to be 10 miles or more from a hospital that can treat victims of gunshot wounds, stabbings or car accidents — such as the motorist who crashed a car that then burst into flames on South Lake Shore Drive at East 51st Street on Sept. 25.
All residents of the North and West sides of the city live less than five miles from a trauma center.
Turner’s ambulance tore up the empty Lake Shore Drive at close to 50 miles per hour on a clear, calm August night, reaching Northwestern Hospital in 10 minutes — the fastest an ambulance can get to a trauma center from the South Side, according to Larry Langford, a spokesman for the fire department.
Langford declined to estimate average travel times, but said traffic and weather can slow down an ambulance considerably.
In the poorest served parts of the city, the state estimates ambulance travel times can approach an hour, about equal to the most isolated rural parts of the state.
“You don’t have a lot of options to go to. The fire department would like more options on the South Side,” Langford said. “It’s a big hole, but I don’t know what to do about it.”
The South Side wasn’t always a big hole. For the first two decades of trauma care in Chicago, only a handful of residents around Lake Calumet were farther than five miles from a trauma care hospital.
“That’s how it was supposed to be,” said Dr. David Boyd, who invented the trauma center classification for hospitals and set up the country’s first trauma care network in Chicago in 1971.
“What we did was we said we know we need coverage on the South Side and we need the university involved because they have the organization and training,” Boyd said. “You can’t justify these guys coming 30 miles in the middle of the night with a bullet in their belly.”
According to Boyd, it was difficult to convince the university to commit to a trauma center and it was given broad leeway, including a smaller area to serve and an agreement from the state to not put up signs directing people to the trauma center.
“It was a nervous situation because they didn’t want to become the county hospital on the South Side,” he said. The university was only intended to be in the network until the smaller community hospitals could build their own trauma care centers, according to Boyd.
The community hospitals on the South Side never opened trauma centers and the university closed its center in 1988, telling the Herald at the time it was losing more than $100,000 a month because of trauma care. Michael Reese Hospital closed the next year, citing millions in yearly losses.
“We, for a while, were the busiest in the city,” said John Easton, a spokesman for the university who has been at the hospital through the opening and closing of the trauma center. “You get a lot of patients that happen to unfortunately be very expensive and can’t pay.”
Cash for trauma centers is few and far between — often subsidized by routine patients with private insurance.
The state operates the Trauma Center Fund, which collects about $2-$4 million a year in fees from drunk driving convictions. Half of the fund is distributed to hospitals across the state based on how many patients they treat in trauma centers that can’t pay, according to Sam Gaines, the state director of emergency medical services. The fund is a small and unreliable source of funding because the governor can choose to empty it into the general coffers at any time, he said.
The state receives some funds for emergency rooms from the federal government, but the money cannot be used for trauma centers, according to Gaines.
“The state would love to have trauma centers in the area, the problems is we can’t mandate it and we can’t fund it,” Gaines said.
The trauma center designation has always been optional for hospitals and the state is only now reviewing the option to make all hospitals apply.
To increase funding for trauma centers, a committee at the Illinois Department of Public Health last month recommended new fees on the sale of guns, ammunition and fireworks. The source of the funds, which would largely come from downstate, could make it politically difficult to spend on expanding South Side trauma centers and hiring the always-on-call staff needed to run them.
City and state officials all agreed that without increased funding, the city would unlikely expand beyond its four current trauma centers, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the county’s John Stroger Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital and Advocate Illinois Masonic and the south suburban Advocate Christ Medical Center.
Together, the five hospitals treat more than 6,500 trauma victims a year. Stroger and Mount Sinai hospitals treat more than 60 percent of trauma cases.
“Too many young people in our area have lost their lives, some of which could have been saved but they were driven by this hospital that does not have a trauma center, that refuses to serve our community,” said Rev. Andre Smith in a prayer at the Sept. 28 rally at the university. “The blood that trailed all the way to Northwestern is on their hands.”
By SAM CHOLKE, Staff Writer, Oct. 6, 2010