Head of U. of C. Medicine's long-sought trauma center: Violence is 'disease'

Headlines surrounding the gun violence on Chicago's South Side would be a deterrent for most people intrigued about a job opportunity in the neighborhood.

But for Dr. Selwyn Rogers, the South Side's troubles were part of his attraction to working there as the first head of University of Chicago Medicine's much-anticipated new trauma center.

"I saw what was going on within the context of intentional violence on the South Side of Chicago," Rogers said. "I actually was very struck by the opportunity and calling to make a difference."

Rogers said goodbye to the warmth of Texas, where he served since 2014 as vice president and chief medical officer at the University of Texas Medical Branch, for the chill of Chicago last week. The surgeon and public health expert will lead development of the center, which will be the South Side's only Level 1 adult trauma center when it opens in 2018.

A state board approved the project in May after activists spent years campaigning for urgent, high-level medical care on the city's South Side — where it has been lacking since the now-defunct Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville closed its center in 1991. That's forced residents of neighborhoods plagued by gun violence to travel as far as 10 miles by ambulance for treatment.

The Rev. Julian DeShazier, a senior pastor at University Church, called Rogers the "perfect person" to develop the trauma center. DeShazier was among those who pushed for the new emergency department and trauma center.

"He has a real sense of the connection between social issues and health outcomes and shows that kind of worldview where we can't just treat illnesses, but we have to treat some of the issues leading to these illnesses as well," DeShazier said.

He said it also helps that Rogers, an African-American, looks like many of those in the community he'll be serving. "If the medical center seeks to truly be in partnership with the community, it's important the community feels represented in a meaningful way," DeShazier said.

Rogers also will serve as executive vice president for community health engagement.

A faculty search committee considered Rogers along with more than 30 other candidates who met the requirements for the job, said Department of Surgery chairman Dr. Jeffrey Matthews, who led the national search. The committee narrowed the list to a top handful of candidates, ultimately landing on Rogers.

"We wanted to find someone with the vision of how a trauma center could dovetail with other efforts by University of Chicago Medicine and the broader University of Chicago to impact not only our local community but also the city of Chicago," Matthews said.

Rogers has studied how issues like race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status affect health care and surgical outcomes. For him it's a personal issue. He knows what it's like to be at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, having grown up poor in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"I saw the impact of not having economic resources, but I never was deterred because I had a bit of audacity, of ignorance," said Rogers, 50. "I didn't know what I didn't know. I did well in school and thought my job, as my mom always shared with me, was to make a difference with the talents and skills that I had."

Rogers earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at Harvard and followed that up with a master's of public health from Vanderbilt University. He's also worked at Temple University Health System in Philadelphia and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

The father of three now hopes to take his interests and experiences and apply them in Chicago. He wants to get to know the community, its needs and how the new trauma center can best help. He's moved to the South Side Kenwood neighborhood, saying it's "key to live in the community in which I'm going to work."

He plans to embark on a listening tour, visiting churches, bazaars and community health centers to learn more.

"There is so much that I don't know, and there are so many people and programs and partners who are doing great work already, South Side of Chicago and beyond," Rogers said. "There's incredible opportunity to listen to the community's needs and design a trauma center that can break down the walls of the hospital and reach into the community."

He knows all too well the importance of reaching beyond hospital walls to address the root causes of violence.

He remembers one night, as a doctor in Boston, when a man in his 30s was rushed to the hospital after being shot in the head. The man's mother and 5-year-old daughter were in tow.

The man was brain-dead, but his mother insisted that she and his daughter see him one last time. Rogers watched as the little girl touched her father's hand. Rogers saw resolve in the mother's face.

Rogers later asked her where she got the strength. He thought she'd say her faith. Instead, she calmly explained that this was her second child who had died after being shot in the head.

"That day reminds me we've got to do more than patch people up and send them back out," Rogers said. "We have to address the larger issues that lead to this intentional violence and treat it as what it is. It's a disease."

lschencker@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @lschencker

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