by Daniel A. Gross via newyorker.com
In August, 2010, an eighteen-year-old named Damian Turner, an aspiring musician and community organizer, was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting on Chicago’s South Side. The bullet entered his body four blocks—one minute by car—from the University of Chicago Medical Center. But paramedics, following protocol, drove him nearly nine miles away, to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. City and state regulations dictate that gunshot victims be taken to a specialized trauma center, and the South Side was a “trauma desert.” Despite its epidemic of gun violence, it has not had its own Level 1 adult trauma center since the nineteen-nineties. At Northwest Memorial, Turner, the co-founder of the youth branch of Southside Together Organizing for Power, or stop, was pronounced dead.
Turner’s death marked the beginning of a movement. His mother told newspapers that he would have lived if not for the university’s lack of facilities. One of Turner’s fellow-activists, Brittany Blaney, suggested at a community meeting that locals hold the U.C.M.C. accountable. A hundred people marched to the hospital from the spot where Turner was shot. A year later, protesters camped out in tents. They argued that the U.C.M.C. had shirked its responsibility to its neighborhood. But university officials resisted. “You would have to transfer resources from the other things we do, and the things we do extraordinarily well and not a lot of other people do, and focus those resources on being an additional trauma center,” a spokesman for the medical center said at the time. Alex Goldenberg, now the executive director of stop, told me, “It took us two years just to get them to acknowledge that it was a problem.” Sharon O’Keefe, the president of the hospital, said, “We were obviously well aware of the community that we reside in. But it took us quite a period of time to really evaluate the broader needs of the community.”
One of the activists’ demands was that the university, which operated a pediatric trauma center, raise the age limit on admittance for children with gunshot wounds. In December, 2014, the university announced that it would raise the limit by two years, to include anyone younger than eighteen. This was a start. A few months later, during the university’s Alumni Weekend, Goldenberg and eight others locked themselves inside a university administration building. The fire department had to cut its way in with axes.
O’Keefe told me that, around that time, the hospital was considering “a more comprehensive plan that was more responsive to the demands of the community,” but it needed a way to cover the costs. “What we didn’t want to do was come up with a short-term response,” she told me. In September, 2015, the university announced plans to co-found a trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital, west of U.C.M.C. But officials soon realized that it would be too costly to help run a new facility five miles away. Finally, the following December, Goldenberg got an unexpected call from a university vice-president. “I have good news for you,” he said. The medical center had decided to open a Level 1 adult trauma center on campus.
The new center opens on May 1st. One of the doctors who will work there is Abdullah Pratt, a resident in emergency medicine. We first met about a year after the university announced its intention to open the trauma center, in a nearly empty U.C.M.C. waiting area, just after sunrise. Pratt, who has a thick beard and wears horn-rimmed glasses, had been working at the hospital since six o’clock the previous evening, and he looked it. He had seen patients with liver failure, vaginal bleeding, and cancer. “This is my fifth straight overnight shift,” he said. But he had stuck around to tell me about the trauma center, and the years of community activism that helped make it happen.
Pratt grew up on the South Side, just south of the hospital, which makes him extremely unusual among University of Chicago medical students and faculty. His was a neighborhood of both poverty and promise, shared by lawyers, athletes, gang members, and drug addicts. One of his friends was shot and killed after he bumped into a man’s girlfriend at a club, spilling her drink. “Everybody’s got a closet full of T-shirts with their friends or family members on it,” he said. Following in the footsteps of his brother Rashad, Pratt attended science camps and played high-school football. He went to college at Valparaiso. By the time he entered medical school, he was living in a high-rise apartment on the edge of Lake Michigan. Once, he showed it off to his brother, who reminded him of the importance of giving back to his community. “Never sell out,” Rashad told him. “You ain’t gonna be shit if you don’t put on for your block.”
Seven months later, Pratt got a call from his mother about Rashad. “He been shot,” she told him. “He’s killed.” Rashad had been sitting in his truck, in front of a friend’s house, when a stranger approached him with a gun. Rashad owned a handgun and tried to defend himself, but he was shot below the ribs, and the bullet hit his heart. “I don’t think that the pain will ever get as bad as that,” Pratt told me. “I know that there’s nobody immune from it. Every young person that I mentor, every one of my friends, has lost somebody. It’s a collective pain.”
After the shooting, Pratt considered taking a break from school. But he thought about his brother’s commitment to giving back, and he listened to a mentor who told him, “You have to use this.” Although a local trauma center would not have saved Rashad’s life, Pratt knew that it could save many others. “I began fighting for those issues, and stopping violence, and going to more of the community demonstrations,” he said. He eventually met with university officials, including O’Keefe, and tried to serve as a mediator between frustrated community members and the U.C.M.C. bureaucracy. “It was literally the only thing that allowed me to sleep at night,” he said.
Chicago first standardized its trauma-center network after the shooting death of another young black man, Benji Wilson, in 1984. Wilson was a seventeen-year-old basketball star. He was shot twice, in Chatham, on the South Side. He died after a long wait for an ambulance and a belated surgery at a local hospital that did not specialize in trauma. Several South Side institutions, including the University of Chicago, subsequently opened adult trauma centers. But trauma care is costly, serves patients who are not always able to pay, and receives little government support. The U.C.M.C. trauma center, which opened in 1986, was a financial failure, and it closed in 1988. “Then we got out of the business,” O’Keefe told me. Within a few years, every Level 1 adult trauma center on the South Side had shut down. In 2013, a study of Chicago gunshot victims showed that those who were shot more than five miles from a trauma center were disproportionately black and uninsured. Not surprisingly, they died at higher rates than other gunshot victims.
Selwyn Rogers, who was hired to direct the new adult trauma center, said he was initially surprised when he learned the U.C.M.C. didn’t already have one. But he hopes that the center can reduce the stark inequality between the university and its surroundings. He pointed out that Hyde Park, the university’s immediate neighborhood, has a life expectancy of more than eighty years. “Literally within a mile of where the University of Chicago sits, in Washington Park, the life expectancy is sixty-nine,” he said.
In addition to building a new emergency department, the U.C.M.C. has hired eighteen medical faculty and numerous staff members, so that patients have around-the-clock access to specialized care.
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