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New Director of University of Chicago’s Adult Trauma Center Says Violence Is a Disease

And doctors should consider their role in preventing its transmission

Selwyn Rogers will lead the new trauma center, which activists fought for over years of protests.   Photo: Courtesy of UChicago Medicine

The director of the University of Chicago’s forthcoming Level 1 adult trauma center, Dr. Selwyn Rogers, issued a challenge to a packed auditorium of doctors, students, and community members on Wednesday afternoon: to accept that violence is a complex, highly contagious disease.

Activists pleaded for the creation of this facility for years, citing the dearth of hospitals able to treat gun victims on the city’s South Side, which they said led to several preventable deaths. Rogers will lead the project, and at this event, he appealed to the 150 or so people in attendance to stop thinking about acts of violence as moral failings committed by “bad people,” and start thinking about it as a learned behavior that spreads through social networks.

In his talk, Rogers focused on what this framework means for health care practitioners—like trauma surgeons. Namely, if violence is a disease, then maybe surgeons should play a much larger role in treating it, rather than what Rogers characterized as the “Patch them up, get them through, good luck” attitude.

“We’re very good surgeons,” he said, addressing the audience members in white coats directly. “But if you spend all that time fixing someone’s physiology and they get [shot again and] return, have you done anything? Have you saved someone’s life?”

Below, a few key points from Rogers’ talk, which kicked off the University’s MacLean Center’s annual lecture series on medical ethics. The new trauma center is scheduled to open in 2018.

On whether doctors could and should be doing more in the treatment and prevention of violence

“We’re all challenged to provide the best possible care to every patient. Do we achieve that? Do we further harm if we only ‘treat and street’ patients?”

On focusing on the experiences and long-term struggles of those who survive shootings

“Unless you really intend to kill someone and shoot them point blank, people survive. But we don’t think about the impact on the survivor, what their life experience is. … At the end of the day, for a person who’s been a victim of trauma or violence, the outcome is not measured by whether or not he survives. In fact, many people would say that survival is sometimes actually worse.”

On a French journalist who asked if he could introduce him to Chicago “gangbangers,” and the importance of changing the narrative

“The narrative is so powerful. … The words we use—they have meaning, and that meaning transforms into actions and policies every day. This became very powerful because it became part of a national narrative through the presidential election. I don’t know how many tweets there were about Chicago and violence. The city’s problem became emblematic of violence in an urban environment, so much so that [the issue began to] appear as if it was unique to the city of Chicago.”

On the ideal role that a trauma center should play in a community

“At the end of the day, the best trauma center is the one that’s like a firehouse. You’re glad it’s there, it provides safety when bad things happen, but you never need to use it.”

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