Chicagoans of the Year 2010: Daniel Ivankovich, The Bone Squad
THE BONE SQUAD
Ten days after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti last January, Dr. Daniel Ivankovich was on the ground, medical supplies in tow. By day, he made rounds in the tent cities, doing triage work and amputations. By night, he and his team drove a flatbed truck to remote survivor camps and gingerly evacuated patients with spinal cord injuries to the military hospital at the airport in Port-au-Prince, inching along at five miles per hour on Haiti’s unpaved roads. It would be several weeks before most other medical teams from the United States would arrive on the island.
“I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to sit there,” Ivankovich says. “We were there from the get-go, and that was the difference. We were being independent and doing our thing—it’s almost like being a mercenary.”
The 47-year-old orthopedic surgeon used the same renegade instincts when he brought back two patients with critical spinal cord injuries to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for treatment. With help from other aid workers and Northwestern University’s Center for Global Health, Ivankovich secured a flight for the quake victims, negotiated with the military and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and got permission for them to enter the United States on a humanitarian waiver. “It’s really not logical, everything that happened,” Ivankovich says. “But I promised [the patients] that I’d take them to Chicago. I was not going to be denied.”
The resourcefulness of the Northwestern University–trained doctor likely results from more than ten years of practicing medicine in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. Ivankovich, who emigrated from Yugoslavia as a boy, accepts mostly uninsured or Medicaid patients, whom many orthopedic surgeons tend to ignore because of the meager payouts. He drives around town and performs operations in the city’s safety-net hospitals, which typically provide care to low-income populations and often don’t have specialists on-site. “I decided to intercept the problem at the source instead of waiting until these people are in a nursing home or crippled,” he says. “I understand I make less money—I’ve got to work twice as hard to make half as much—but there is a fantastic opportunity to do good.”
Ivankovich—a nearly seven-foot-tall blues guitarist and former radio jockey usually clad in black—has returned to Haiti twice since his first trip, and he says that he wants to “retool one of the [Haitian] hospitals to be capable of doing major orthopedic cases. Haiti is going to be an ongoing endeavor for me.”
Still, he is fully committed to his work in Chicago leading the Bone Squad—a consortium of surgeons, primary-care doctors, and other medical professionals who treat the city’s low-income population. Referring to the health-care problem in Chicago as “the mountain,” Ivankovich says his goal is to bring full-time orthopedic surgeons to each of the city’s dozen safety-net hospitals and to create “a fluid system” in which doctors and social-work agencies collaborate on caring for the underserved.
“Once I can accomplish that in Chicago, then it becomes scalable,” Ivankovich says. “Then I can take the model to Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Newark, New York, and everywhere else.”
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