Trauma Center Official: “We’re really filling a need for our community”

The Maroon sat down with Debra Allen, UChicago Medicine’s clinical director of trauma, and Dr. Ken Wilson, the deputy director of trauma, to discuss their professional backgrounds, the trauma center designation, and the future of UChicago Medicine.


Debra Allen (right) is UChicago Medicine’s clinical director of trauma, and Dr. Ken Wilson (left) is the deputy director of trauma.

By Oren Oppenheim, News Editor

After years of community activism and preparation, UChicago Medicine will open its Level I adult trauma center—the only one on the South Side—on May 1. The Maroon sat down with Debra Allen, UChicago Medicine’s clinical director of trauma services, and Dr. Kenneth Wilson, the deputy director of the trauma center, to discuss their professional backgrounds, the trauma center designation, and the future of UChicago Medicine.

Allen has been in trauma care for over thirty years, and he came to UChicago Medicine last year after working as the regional trauma program manager for the city of Cleveland. Wilson worked in trauma in D.C., Atlanta, and Flint, Michigan before coming to Chicago.

Chicago Maroon: How has UChicago Medicine been preparing for the designation as a trauma center, and what have your roles been as the opening approaches on May 1st?

Debra Allen: For the last year, we have been working very intently on developing clinical protocols that are evidence based. We are working on educating the staff; we have been working on changing processes and looking at the operationalization of how trauma patients are going to move through the system…. Our trauma patients are going to be taken care of in the same fashion [as] all of the other patients that we take care of here, with expertise and medical care, and research.   

CM: The discussion about the trauma center has focused on the fact that the South Side has lacked a Level I adult trauma center for many years, which forces people who are injured near the University to travel long distances north for care. What is the significance of a new trauma center opening on the South Side for its residents and the University?

Kenneth Wilson: I think you stated what is obvious: that if you are injured around the campus, it would make sense that in this system that has every specialty and [type of] surgery, you go here. The sooner you stop someone from exsanguinating, the better off the patient. So that really has been the cry for the neighborhoods that touch Hyde Park. We are going to decrease transport time for a whole bunch of people.

DA: We’re really looking to partner with the community, to help improve the care of the community, and just as you said, the South Side has been considered sort of a trauma desert. We haven’t had a Level I trauma center for a while [Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville closed in 1991]. So we’re really filling a need for our community.

CM: In an interview you did last year for UChicago Medicine’s website—when you joined UChicago Medicine—you said that hospitals nowadays really need to work with public officials, and you spoke about collaboration between UC Medicine and community officials. How do you both feel that this effort has been working out? How do you think UChicago will keep on going with this as things move forward?

DA: It’s very important that we now have a voice on the South Side. We will work collaboratively with not only the community officials, but also the community members, so we can help provide a voice for what is needed for the South Side—for not only the trauma care, but really for disparities and healthcare in general. I think that is something we all feel passionately about: to be able to really service the South Side in a collaborative effort.

KW: I believe that we have an obligation to take care of patients, [just] as the community has an obligation to take care of the constituents. So what happens when they get here—we have to have a good rapport, as was mentioned, with community leaders. The community leaders tell us, they go back to their constituents and if we’re not doing a good job, then we want to know that. I think that’s what’s going to make this trauma center different…. [Community members] have seen intentional violence in our neighborhood, they have seen patients go past this place. There’s a little bit of mystery of what happens inside this place, if you’re a trauma patient. So we want to be able to…have [community] leaders go back to their constituents as I mentioned, and say that all is well.

CM: You’ve also discussed how the designation [of UC Medicine] as a trauma center will transform UChicago Medicine into a trauma hospital, and that all the departments of the hospital are involved. Could you both elaborate on this, and how both of you have been coordinating efforts across departments of the hospital?

DA: I think it’s kind of a misconception that a trauma department is in the emergency department…. Our goal is to get them out of the emergency department as soon as possible and to get them to definitive care—whether that means the Intensive Care Unit, the operating room, interventional radiology for procedures to stop bleeding, [the hospital medical] floor, wherever it is. So our trauma patients, again, will be coming through multiple departments before they’re discharged. 

CM: What’s a typical day at UChicago Medicine like for each of you, and what are the best and worst things about your job?

DA: So I think right now, we’re not having typical [days], because right now we’re not open yet. I think we’re all waiting until May 1st so that we can get back into our comfort zone, where we can take care of patients, because that’s why we really came here, to take care of patients, and to make a difference in people’s lives. I think our typical day is spent way too much in meetings right now, but [they’re] necessary in order to get ready. Talk to me May 1st, and that’ll be our typical day with a trauma patient. We’re [going to] be doing what we love to do.

KW: [On the] worst days, meetings start at six o’clock in the morning. [On] some days, we get here at four in the morning…. The best part of the job is actually having the ability to create a trauma service—that is, without any chronic issues—and we can develop the system in the way that we want to because we’re not walking into something that was already existing…. That’s the exciting part—when we go live on May 1st, [it’ll be] like building your own house.      

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.