This article is from today’s Arizona Republic and USA today. Making something positive out of something so profoundly negative is quite a feat. Our hospital, healthcare team and friends Mike Lemole and Peter Rhee have done just that.
PHOENIX — This week marks the first anniversary since University of Arizona Medical Center’s doctors and nurses worked round-the-clock to treat U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffordsand other victims of a Tucson-area shooting rampage.
In the days after the Jan. 8 attack that killed six people and wounded 13, the hospital became the focal point of Tucson’s efforts to recover in the aftermath of tragedy.
Life has changed dramatically for the two surgeons who became medical celebrities with their daily media briefings on Giffords and the other shooting victims. The hospital has gained boosts both in philanthropy and reputation.
But its staff also has coped with other key issues that continue to affect the Tucson community: a health-care system merger and a new name, state budget cuts for health care and an increasing volume of trauma patients.
Formerly called University Medical Center, the hospital has been renamed the University of Arizona Medical Center, which is part of the University of Arizona Health Network. The Health Network was formed from the 2010 merger of University Medical Center Corp. and University Physicians Healthcare.
Hospital representatives said that this week gives them an opportunity to reflect on their role in last January’s shooting.
“It’s an opportunity for us to look back on how we came together,” said Karen Mlawsky, the hospital’s CEO.
Dr. Peter Rhee, the trauma department’s medical director, has maintained a high profile. He has attended a White House dinner honoring South Korea‘s president, hosted a fundraiser for the UA hospital’s trauma center and raised awareness about issues such as gun violence and trauma funding.
Giffords’ neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lemole, also has used his fame to advocate for the hospital and has worked tirelessly to build his medical practice and expertise in skull-base surgery.
The shooting brought worldwide attention to southern Arizona’s only Level 1 trauma center, but Lemole and Rhee said their individual efforts were nothing out of the ordinary.
“We’re doing this all the time,” Lemole said. “What looks like an exceptional event, for me and my partners, it happens a couple of times a week with a blood clot in the head or a gunshot wound.”
One year after the tragedy, the goodwill generated from the hospital’s efforts to treat the victims is still trickling in.
As hospital staffers worked to nurse the victims back to health, the hospital’s foundation was deluged with offers of financial help.
“We got a ton of calls very quickly,” said Kent Rollins, president of the UMC Foundation. “As early as the next day (Jan. 9), we got our first check for $5,000.”
Hundreds of individuals pledged donations ranging from $10 to $5,000 in the days and weeks after the shooting, Rollins said.
Many donors expressed interest in contributing directly to the shooting victims, particularly 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest victim. Her parents established the Christina-Taylor Green Memorial Foundation with the goal of funding charitable and educational projects in the girl’s honor.
Donors also have been generous to the medical center’s trauma department, with an estimated $150,000 in gifts. The largest gift to the department came from Raytheon, which agreed to donate $100,000 for research on treating wounded veterans.
Rhee said he approached Raytheon about a potential donation to aid research on behalf of wounded veterans. Through his years as a battlefield surgeon, he said, he learned of the damage bombs and missiles can inflict on soldiers, so he thought Raytheon would be interested in funding efforts to help returning veterans recover from injuries.
Rhee returned to Tucson on Christmas Day after a two-week stint at a military hospital in Germany, where he tended to soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and met with Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Rhee said these wounded soldiers — many recovering from amputated arms and legs — are “the soldiers I had in mind when I wanted to fund a Raytheon trauma center.”
Rhee said such external funding sources are even more important now, considering Arizona’s cut to health-care funding.
The hospital and medical staff also cited the event as having an impact on recruitment for new doctors and nurses.
The hospital does not keep any statistics on how the tragedy helped recruitment efforts, but hospital administrators and physicians anecdotally say the hospital’s response to the tragedy is often a topic of conversation during interviews.
“The event elevated the university to a different status,” Lemole said. “When I am recruiting faculty or even residents, the added high-profile exposure does help.”
Keeping tabs on Giffords
Both Rhee and Lemole have spent time with Giffords in recent months and have praised her hard work and recovery.
Although Lemole is not involved in her rehabilitation, he has kept tabs on the Tucson congresswoman through her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
Lemole last fall attended a private dinner with Giffords, Kelly and family members before they both appeared on the air in a prime-time television news interview.
He acknowledges that his interaction with Giffords and family members has been unusual compared with most of his patients. He usually keeps a professional distance, preferring to keep emotions aside when making clinical decisions that will affect the outcome for an individual.
“When you interact with a patient, in many ways you have to keep them at a distance. You don’t want to think about the fact you are operating on a human being,” Lemole said.
But he said he has allowed those professional constraints to relax a little bit as his relationship with his highest-profile patient has developed.
Lemole added that Giffords is an ideal patient because of the sweat and effort she has put into her rehabilitation.
“She has made a phenomenal recovery, she really has,” Lemole said. “She has a lot of courage to go out in public with her husband and display for the world to see the disabilities she is struggling with, her attempts to overcome them and her successes.”
He would not offer an opinion on whether he thinks her health and recovery have progressed enough to allow her to run for re-election. If he said she could run again and she decided not to, he said, the public perception would be that she has somehow fallen short of expectations.
After such a life-altering experience, Lemole said, he does not know if Giffords even wants to run.
“What she will do is what she will do,” Lemole said. “She has to take that at her own pace.”