U of C students join South Side community activists in fight for trauma center

Students for Health Equity hold a mock debate to discuss the trauma center campaign.
Students for Health Equity hold a mock debate to discuss the trauma center campaign.

By Courtney Dillard

Community activists have been fighting for the University of Chicago Medical Center to re-open its Level 1 trauma care center for years, but the pressure from U of C students has forced the administration to listen.

Students for Health Equity hosted a teach-in Tuesday on U of C’s campus to answer questions and debunk myths about the trauma center campaign. Group members say their different perspective gives them the ability to effect change.

“The administration listens to us with a different ear,” said Duff Morton, a graduate student and Students for Health Equity member. “When we take risks, the administration overreacts, and it benefits the campaign.”

In January 2013, Toussaint Losier, a University of Chicago Ph.D. student, was arrested during a protest at the university’s Center for Care and Discovery. After Losier’s arrest, Thomas F. Rosenbaum, university provost, sent an email to students promising an open forum for discussion about the trauma center. During that discussion, in May 2013, the medical center’s administration admitted for the first time that the South Side needed a trauma center.

“They had been saying for years that there was no correlation between death and travel time to the trauma center,” said Morton. The closest adult trauma to the South Side is Northwestern Memorial Hospital in River North, almost 10 miles away.

In June 2013, Dr. Marie Crandall, associate professor in trauma surgery, critical care and preventative medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, published a study in the American Journal of Public Health linking longer travel times to higher mortality rates for gunshot victims.

Morton said last year was the beginning of “a slow move forward” for the trauma center campaign.

“The administration has acknowledged that there should be a collective solution,” said Morton. “No one else has the resources. As long as we have a private health system, private hospitals need to take responsibility.”

The U of C medical center says that opening a trauma center would take away from their burn unit and neonatal intensive care unit, as well as other emergency services for South Side residents.

The U of C Medical Center closed its Level 1 trauma center in 1988 due to lack of funding. Comer Children’s Hospital, on U of C’s campus, has a Level 1 pediatric trauma center, but victims over the age of 16 cannot be treated there.

Lorna Wong, director of the medical center’s media relations office said, “We continually have discussions with other area health care providers about ways to improve the health of the South Side. The topics that have come up this year include the trauma care issue. As we typically do around our efforts to address community health needs, we will share any developments as they unfold.”

Though Students for Health Equity is a U of C student group, it functions under an umbrella of organizations, including Fearless Leading by Youth, a group of youth leaders and community activists.

“It’s imperative to follow people who aren’t students. We were started by FLY. We are led by FLY,” said Morton. “Our ultimate conclusion was that we could build more power by having separate meetings.”

In 2010, Damian Turner, a co-founder of Fearless Leading by Youth, was shot outside his house on the South Side. Turner was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he later died. His death reignited the trauma center debate.

“If you look at a map of the city’s trauma centers, you are looking at people who are left alone. Alone happens in an ambulance ride,” said Morton. “The trauma center campaign is about refusing to be alone.”