Through book, doctor heals himself
Trauma physician and former military surgeon writes 'therapeutic' memoir about a career spent in ERs and war zones
Dr. James Cole at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. Cole has written a memoir about his career as a trauma physician. (Corey R. Minkanic/Chicago Tribune / May 24, 2011)
So on New Year's Day 2010 — with the help of some notes, but largely from memory — he sat down and began writing about his experiences as a doctor.
Cole, currently the assistant medical director of trauma services at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, has dealt with such maladies as gunshot wounds, flesh-eating bacteria, farm and industrial accidents, and attempted suicides. His patients have included criminals, drug addicts and the mentally ill.
But his experiences go beyond those of most doctors. Cole, 46, also was trained to be a military surgeon. He served in a Marine Corps reconnaissance unit, in the U.S. Special Operations Command and on a Navy Reserve SEAL team. He cared for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He has treated, in his words, "individuals wounded from both common mechanisms of injury and by every other gruesome cause imaginable."
Cole's recollections of a career spent in such tension-packed sites as emergency rooms and war zones resulted in "Trauma," a 320-page book to be published this October by St. Martin's Press.
"I've always wanted to write something, and I've had a unique set of experiences," said Cole, who has been associated with Good Samaritan since 2001.
"When I was in Iraq, I wrote a lot of letters home, and I found it therapeutic to write about my experiences," he said. "And several people said that I should put my thoughts down into a journal. So one day, I started writing. I work long shifts at Good Samaritan Hospital — 12-30 hours at a time sometimes — and I wrote a little something almost every day."
The book begins with his postgraduate medical education at Camp Pendleton in California in July 1992 and ends with his treatment of a 21-year-old college senior who survived after being struck by a car in 2009. Cole describes in precise detail his training and various patients he has diagnosed and treated.
In one chapter, Cole writes how treating critically ill patients has profoundly affected his life.
"Over the course of my twenty-year career as a physician and surgeon, I have cared for thousands of critically wounded and gravely ill individuals," he writes. "… I have seen the life pass from individuals too numerous to count — men, women and children — as they died in my presence. And I have on countless occasions borne the unpleasant responsibility of breaking the gut-wrenching news to family members and friends — who just hours prior saw their spouses or loved ones off to work or school — that the person whom they once loved so very dearly in life, had now passed on to the world of the dead. I have heard the wailing and the screaming of grieving mothers, and I have seen the faces of the victims' fathers before my very eyes. I have often felt that for every family to whom I have given the terrible news, I myself have sacrificed at least a few days of my own life."
Cole said the trauma cases that have had the most impact on him are those involving young children.
"I remember … the case of a young boy who was stabbed in the chest with a screwdriver by his drug-intoxicated father," recalled Cole, who was a fourth-year resident at the University of Mexico at the time. "I was shocked to see the child wheeled in, clearly in the throes of death. Despite our heroic attempts to save the boy, his demise was inevitable, and a decade and a half later, I still think about what he might have become if he had never been so brutally assaulted by his own father."
At Good Samaritan, ER physicians treat "lots of motor vehicle and domestic altercation patients," Cole said. But the hospital, which as a designated Level 1 center can handle the most extreme emergencies, also gets "penetrating trauma" such as knife and gunshot wounds. According to Dr. Michael Iwanicki, director of trauma services at the hospital, Cole's breadth of experience is an asset for some of the most crucial cases encountered in the ER.
"We had a male in his mid-30s come in who had to have one of his legs amputated," Iwanicki said. "Dr. Cole's experience in Iraq and Afghanistan dealing with this type of higher-force traumatic injury allowed him to be a bit calmer under pressure, as he knew what to expect. We see patients that have multisystem injuries, so Dr. Cole's wartime experience is helpful in treating patients."
Cole, who grew up in Mount Prospect, lives in the western suburbs. He and his wife, Michele, have four children.
Writing the book, Cole said, "let me let go of the memories."
"I don't have to store them in my memory anymore," he said. "It's enjoyable to let other people know about my medical career. Many people have had components of my career, but there aren't a whole lot of doctors who have treated this wide spectrum of the population. Treating these people has enriched my life."