PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday January 29th, 2016, 4:44pm

After U Of C Trauma Center Announcement, Activists Talk Next Steps

Community organizers scored a major victory last month when the University of Chicago Medicine announced plans to reopen a Level 1 adult trauma center at its Hyde Park campus. Progress Illinois looks at what comes next for the project and the activists who led the five-year trauma center campaign.

Chicago activists who were instrumental in spurring the University of Chicago Medicine's plans to build a South Side adult trauma center expect to meet next week with school officials to discuss the project's community engagement process.

"It's really important to us that community [members] have a voice in decision-making about what this trauma center looks like," said Alex Goldenberg, director of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), one among several groups involved with the Trauma Care Coalition.

Goldenberg said Trauma Care Coalition members -- who led the five-year campaign for a South Side adult trauma center -- plan to meet Wednesday with U of C Medicine's vice president for community health engagement and U of C's vice president for civic engagement. Coalition members will make a series of requests at the meeting.

"It's really important to us that the university outline a clear timeline that they can be held accountable to and that there be some commitments around social services that come with the trauma center," Goldenberg said, adding that the group will propose a series of town hall meetings to gather community input on "what kind of services they are interested in seeing with this trauma center."

The coalition will also ask for quarterly meetings with top university officials, including Dr. Kenneth Polonsky, U of C Medicine's executive vice president for medical affairs, and express its desire to have a voice in the eventual hiring process for a trauma center chief.

"We're going to be discussing all of those issues with them next Wednesday," Goldenberg said.

The U of C Medical Center previously operated a Level 1 adult trauma center, but closed it back in 1988 for financial reasons.

Chicago's South Side, hard hit by gun violence, currently lacks a Level 1 adult trauma facility. As a result, seriously injured people are forced to travel miles away to other parts of the city for medical care.

After five years of organizing and countless protests urging U of C Medicine to reopen a South Side adult trauma center, the Trauma Care Coalition scored a major victory last month when the medical center announced plans to build a Level 1 adult trauma unit at its Hyde Park campus. The facility could open by 2018.

"People were jumping on the tables for joy," Goldenberg said of the coalition's reaction to the trauma center announcement. "There was a sense of feeling vindicated, of feeling restored in a way. Because there were years of being told that this was not needed, that the lives that were being lost were not valuable, and this complete reversal really kind of felt like the just outcome and made all the blood, sweat and tears, I think, worth it over the years."

The trauma center campaign was sparked by the 2010 death of 18-year-old youth activist Damian Turner, who co-founded Fearless Leading by the Youth. He was shot near the corner of 51st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, just a few blocks away from the U of C hospital. Turner was transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital near the Loop due to the absence of a nearby Level 1 trauma center, but he died an hour-and-a-half later. Trauma Care Coalition members believe Turner would have lived had there been an adult trauma ward nearby.

In the past, U of C Medicine officials resisted calls to reopen an adult trauma facility, saying that such a project "would be a massive undertaking requiring significant hospital and state approvals, resources and funding" and was not something the medical center could take on alone.

U of C representatives held that position until September, when the medical center announced it would team up with Sinai Health System to bring a Level 1 adult trauma center to Holy Cross Hospital, at 68th Street and California Avenue. Officials later scrapped that plan, with U of C Medicine saying in December that the Level 1 adult trauma center would instead be built at its Hyde Park campus.

"This really represents a victory for community organization," said U of C Dr. Philip Verhoef, an adult and pediatric critical care physician who supports the trauma center campaign. "In 2010, when Damian Turner passed away, I don't think it was on anybody's radar to try and re-establish trauma care at the University of Chicago or, frankly, anywhere on the South Side of Chicago ... I don't know if you can point to any single [community organizing] event that turned it around, but I think ultimately it was this constant effort that put it on the radar, and then ultimately brought the university around to doing something about it."

Building an adult trauma facility is a key component of the U of C Medicine's larger "community plan to strengthen access to care for Chicago's South Side." As part of that effort, the medical center is also expanding emergency services and increasing its inpatient capacity.

"Community engagement will continue to be an important part of the process. This plan is, in part, an outgrowth of what the community told us they wanted from our hospital," U of C Medicine spokeswoman Lorna Wong told Progress Illinois via email. "We listened, and we responded. We will be actively working with all our community partners to ensure greater access to care for patients on the South Side through this plan."

As for the university's next steps, U of C Medicine officials are "working to finalize the details of our Certificate of Need application," to be filed with the state, "and expect to have it completed within the next several weeks," Wong said.

There are several regulatory hurdles the project will eventually have to clear.

"In terms of the approval process, the first step will be a hearing by the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board," Wong explained. "Once approved at that stage, we will seek approval for a Level 1 adult trauma center from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Chicago Trauma Network. The timing of the regulatory process is unknown at this stage."

Essentially, the trauma center is not a done deal just yet. 

"They've outlined all of the regulatory steps that they need to go through, and so to the extent that the university is committed to making this happen, there's still no guarantee that every single one of those regulatory barriers will be overcome," Verhoef said. "I'm cautiously optimistic, because it's hard for me to imagine that any of the various stakeholders in this -- whether it's the Illinois Department of Public Health or the Chicago Trauma Network -- would really want to see this thing not work out, nor is it really conceivable for me to imagine that the university would be unable to put together a compelling argument in favor of a trauma center."

"I'm hopeful still," he said, "but I think I will remain cautiously optimistic."

Stay tuned.

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