CHICAGO — As a young doctor in his early 30s, Selwyn Rogers Jr. was faced with having to inform a mother that her 28-year-old son had been shot in the head and was brain-dead. He struggled with that burden, urging the mom not to see her son one last time and remember him as a vegetable.
But the mother insisted, saying she wanted to bring the hospitalized man’s daughter along to visit her father one last time. In that sad moment, there were no tears, no wailing, no sobbing, just peace. When Rogers — now 51 and working as director of the University of Chicago Medicine’s new trauma center — asked where the woman found her strength, she said she had had to do the same thing with another son just two years previously.
“I said then, ‘I never want to be able to say that again to another family.’ That’s largely why I do what I do today with a passion,” Rogers said.
The Harvard-trained trauma surgeon and public health expert shared that anecdote last week as part of the American Hospital Association’s Hospitals Against Violence Hope Friday. The association convened that day of awareness to help focus attention across the nation on ending violence that occurs both in the community and within the hospital’s four walls. (For more on #HAVhope, and to become a supporter, visit this page.)
Rogers, whom we spoke with at length in March, encouraged the AHA and its member hospitals to move away from the easy belief that homicides plaguing cities like Chicago are simply perpetrated by gangbangers and other “bad people,” that these moments of bloodshed are intractable and isolated incidents, and that incarceration is the only answer. Rather, he said, such violence is allowed to fester through negative norms and learned behavior, spread through contagious processes similar to a virus, and, just like disease, we can fashion a public-health response to stop its perpetuation.
The University of Chicago is hoping to do so with the opening of its new Level 1 trauma center on the Windy City’s violence-plagued South Side (the first to serve that community since 1989). More than 760 individuals were murdered in Chicago last year, a 58 percent uptick from 2015. And the city's seen more than 3,500 individuals killed in the past seven years, Rogers noted.
Using Chicago as an example — and it’s not alone, as other cities such as St. Louis, Baltimore and Milwaukee are plagued by similar problems — the city’s South and West sides are disproportionately affected by such violence. A person living in Chicago’s affluent downtown core has an 85-year life expectancy. That’s more than a decade and a half greater than those living in the Washington Park community (69 years), which is just eight miles south of the city’s central business district and adjacent to the U of C campus.
Rogers ticked off myriad stats that are fueling this disparity, be it more than 835,000 Chicagoans on the West and South sides living in high economic hardship, blacks being nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than whites in certain parts of the city, and neighborhoods where one-third or more of adults do not have a high school diploma.
“This is a unique context and unique time in this city to do something transformative for communities in need. That’s the context. Now, the opportunity is tremendous, but I’m going to say that we here in Chicago ... are addressing the problem in the wrong way,” Rogers said.
The new way will mean not just providing emergency medical care and trauma services after someone is shot or stabbed, but also long-term case management, behavioral and social health services, and access to safer environments following an incident. Plus, working toward preventing further violence through positive-parenting classes, training on how to make the right decisions, anti-bullying and conflict resolution, job training, and providing stable housing and support services can make a difference, Rogers said.
In our March interview, Rogers talked a little about how he’s serving in a dual role at U of C. In addition to being head of the new trauma center, he's also the executive vice president of community health engagement. As such, he’s been reaching out into the community to address population health on the South Side and look more closely at health care disparities related to cancer, diabetes and peripheral arterial disease. For instance, black children in certain Chicago ZIP codes visit the emergency department, as opposed to a primary care doctor, for their asthma twice as often as Chicago children overall, Rogers noted Friday.
“This is a pivot moment in the history of the University of Chicago,” he said, about changing the conversation and approach to addressing violence. And no one person or entity, whether the U of C, AHA or Rogers, can make that pivot alone.
“This was such a compelling opportunity to be part of history, to make history, that it’s a calling. But I’m one person, and I’m not a messiah. The reality is we need lots of partners," Rogers said. "But the biggest part of that journey ... is we’ve got to get intimate with our communities. We’ve got to become partners. We can’t wall ourselves off, and it is only through that intimacy, that connection, that getting close, will we actually share the lives of and be partners with people on their journey.”