As I look out through the window from my private medical office next to the emergency room, I see daily patients being brought in by ambulance and then taken away by helicopter to Tampa or St. Petersburg. Most of them are victims of trauma. They do not know exactly where they are being taken, how long they may survive or in what condition they may be in, if they do survive the transport.
I get very emotional and upset when I see the family members looking into the sky with tears in their eyes saying goodbye to their loved ones, as long as the helicopter is in sight. I can see on their faces many questions, but no easy answers. Where do they need to go from here? How do they get there? Whether their loved ones will still be alive when they get there? New place, new people, new doctors and new questions.
I never envisioned myself in that helicopter, as a patient. Like most other people, I used to think that I was invincible and nothing would ever happen to me. After my recent brush with death, I think differently. What if I was involved in a bad accident on my way to the hospital? Will there be enough time for me to survive while I'm being transported to a distant hospital in another county to get the necessary care?
Trauma is the leading cause of death ages of people 44 and younger. Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of trauma-related deaths and falls are the second-leading cause. Trauma also is a time-sensitive condition, just like a heart attack or stroke. The quicker you can get to a capable treatment facility, the more likely you are to survive.
In 1981, when I started my cardiology private practice in Hudson, the 50-bed hospital did not even have an echocardiogram machine that I could use. I had to take out a loan and buy one, to make the right treatment decisions for heart patients. We used to send hundreds of patients to Tampa for heart catheterization and surgery. I used the same arguments about the need for local advanced cardiac care at that time and I faced the same objections, opposition and court appeals then that the proposed trauma center is now.
People said we were in the boon docks, did not have expertise, did not have the volume of patients, didn't not need one, wouldn't make enough money, wouldn't maintain quality, would hurt other doctors and hospitals and would destroy tertiary referral centers.
Guess what? We prevailed with the heart center and we proved them all wrong. We became one of the top 50 cardiac centers in the country (U.S. News & World Report) within 10 years after we started a high-quality program.
We did not hurt any doctors or hospitals. It was a win-win situation. It actually promoted overall quality of medical care for all other specialties at our hospital. We attracted highly qualified physicians in many specialties from all over the country. The hospital grew more than five times its original size and created lots of jobs. All other competing hospitals rose to the occasion and did their best to become providers of the best possible care which benefited both hospitals and patients. We saved lives close to home with comfort and peace to the families. They did not need to travel distances to unknown places, dealing with unknown doctors and living in motels under most difficult circumstances.
It is about time to treat trauma like a heart attack or stroke, taking the patient to the operating room, as soon as necessary, instead of waiting to load the patient into an ambulance or helicopter or even worse.
There is no local state approved trauma center in Pasco, Hernando, Citrus or Marion counties. Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, in Hudson, is willing to take the lead to do the right thing once again, by investing resources (with USF affiliation) to create a high-quality trauma center, that will meet rigorous government standards. The hospital will be required to treat all emergency serious trauma patients, irrespective of their ability to pay.
Please note that I am an experienced practicing physician and a concerned private citizen. I do not work for HCA and never did. The only conflict of interest, if one can call it that, is my compelling desire to reduce death and disability.
It is about time for the community and the government agencies to support and appreciate that time is of the essence in trauma care. Someday, it may make all the difference between life and death for you or your loved one.
Dr. Rao Musunuru, a cardiologist, has been serving residents of Pasco and Hernando counties since 1981. The American Heart Association named him national physician of the year in 2005.