THE LOOP — After three years of activists crying for better treatment of traumatic injuries on the South Side, state and federal legislators are taking notice.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) convened a committee meeting to look into whether people are dying on the South Side from gunshot wounds because the specialized care they need is all at hospitals on the North or West sides of the city or in the south suburbs.
“It’s long overdue and it’s totally unacceptable — people are dying,” Hunter said at the hearing at the state's Bilandic Building at 160 N. LaSalle St.
She said she believes the South Side deserves a comprehensive care center to treat patients with the most serious injuries from gunshot wounds and other violence and car accidents on the South Side.
But much of the South Side, particularly where gun violence is most frequent, is nestled between the trauma centers at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, which are each well more than five miles from most South Side residents.
Dr. Marie Crandall, a researcher and trauma surgeon at Northwestern, told the committee that she has studied 11 years of patient data and determined that the risk of dying is 21 percent higher for victims of gunshot wounds that live more than five miles from a trauma center.
Crandall said her research shows a quarter of residents on the South Side face a 30-minute-plus ride in an ambulance to a trauma center, which results in an estimated seven or eight people dying from gunshot wounds on the South Side each year because they are too far from a trauma center.
“It’s clear that if there was a center on the South or Southwest Side, the differences in transport times could be eliminated,” Crandall said.
Crandall said she has studied the clusters of traumatic injuries on the South Side and said Advocate Trinity Hospital, at 2320 E. 93rd St., may be better situated geographically to optimally reduce the length of ambulance rides.
Officials with Advocate Trinity could not immediately be reached for comment.
Still, others at the hearing pushed for the University of Chicago in Hyde Park to house the center.
“There is no better institution to do it,” said Dr. Phillip Verhoef, who works in the intensive care unit at the University of Chicago Medical Center and Comer Children’s Hospital, which does treat trauma patients under the age of 16. “I don’t think there’s anyone else who can step up and provide trauma care the way the University of Chicago can.”
The activist group Fearless Leadership by the Youth, which formed after 18-year-old Damian Turner died on his way from Woodlawn to Northwestern with a gunshot would to his heart in 2010, also believe the University of Chicago is the obvious home for a new trauma center. The group held a protest before the hearing demanding the university open a center.
A University of Chicago spokeswoman, who said a representative from the hospital was not invited to testify at the hearing, said later that the university’s position remained that it was committed to working with other healthcare providers on the South Side to look into the issue, but they have no plans to open such a center. She said housing a trauma center at the university’s hospital would require it to scale back on other services.
The issue is complicated because trauma centers, which require a large number of medical specialists on call at all hours and extra operating rooms, are extremely expensive to operate. Experts at the hearing pegged the cost of a fully operational trauma center at $20 million to $40 million per year, a cost many expected only the University of Chicago to be able to afford.
Trauma surgeons said the other issue is the city actually has the right number of trauma centers now, they’re just in the wrong places.
“Six is actually the right number and six is what we have in the city of Chicago,” said Dr. Gary Merlotti, a trauma surgeon at Mt. Sinai’s trauma center at 19th Street and California Avenue and who helped establish the trauma care network in the city in the 1970s.
Merlotti, who along with other doctors has been looking into how to get University of Chicago doctors into a new trauma center at Advocate Trinity, said too many trauma centers would be a bad thing because research shows that trauma surgeons’ performance improves the more patients they regularly treat and outcomes improve.
After three hours of testimony, Hunter asked the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Illinois Hospital Association and Illinois Department of Health and Family Services to begin studying how a new trauma center could help South Siders and where it should be.
“We know the area hospitals that might be good candidates and we can crunch the numbers,” said LaMar Hasbrouck, director of the Illinois Department Public Health.
Hunter said the state cannot require a hospital become a trauma center, but can offer incentives for hospitals that take the designation on voluntarily. The state cannot require a hospital become a center.
Hunter said the committee would reconvene in January to review possible candidates for a trauma center.
For protestors, the hearing marked distinct progress for a campaign that for years has been deadlocked in an intractable debate with the University of Chicago. Protesters said they feel like they are finally moving forward on their campaign to get a trauma center on the South Side.
“This is definitely progress without a shadow of a doubt,” said Veronica Morris-Moore, an organizer with Fearless Leadership by the Youth.