Congresswoman Gabby Giffords is a household name: most people remember that awful day in Arizona in 2011 when she was a victim of an act of violence that left six dead and thirteen wounded. What many people don’t know is that it was Dr. Peter Rhee who played a vital role in her survival.
Born in South Korea, Rhee moved with his family to Uganda where he watched his public health surgeon father remove a spear from a man’s belly—and began his lifelong interest in medicine. What came next is this compelling portrait of how one becomes a world class trauma surgeon: the specialized training, the mindset to make critical decisions, and the practiced ability to operate on the human body. Dr. Rhee is so eminent that when President Clinton traveled to China, he was selected to accompany the president as his personal physician. In Trauma Red we learn how Rhee’s experiences were born from the love and sacrifices of determined parents, and of Rhee’s own quest to become as excellent a surgeon as possible.
Trauma Red chronicles the patient cases Dr. Rhee has handled over two decades on two distinct battle fronts: In Iraq and Afghanistan, where he served as a frontline US Navy surgeon trying to save young American soldiers, and the urban zones of Los Angeles and Washington, DC, where he has been confronted by an endless stream of bloody victims of civilian violence and accidents. Tough and outspoken, Dr. Rhee isn’t afraid to take on the politics of violence in America and a medical community that too often resists innovation. His story provides an inside look into a fascinating medical world, a place where lives are saved every day.
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About the Author
Gordon Dillow has been a reporter, columnist, and war correspondent for more than thirty years. He has written for a number of newspapers, including the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and is the author of Fire in the Sky and coauthor of Where the Money Is, Uppity, and Blue on Blue. He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
The sound of the gunfire had barely faded away when I got the text message on my phone: “Heads up. Trauma red. We’ve got ten GSWs coming in.”
My first thought was, Oh, no, not now. Not today.
It was Saturday, January 8, 2011, my first scheduled full day off in weeks. I had just finished a thirty-six-hour shift the night before at Tucson’s University Medical Center, where I was chief of Trauma, Critical Care, Emergency Surgery, and Burns—thirty-six straight hours of handling whatever sick, bruised, battered, bloodied, and near-dead humans the EMTs wheeled through the doors. I’d had a couple of shootings, two stabbings, several traffic accidents, a pedestrian run over by a car, a guy who fell off his roof while trying to fix his air conditioner. We do medical emergency surgeries, too, for people who just can’t wait, or who have waited too long, so I had done an emergency appendectomy and also cut out a cancerous tumor that had perforated the bowels of a guy who bragged to me that he hadn’t been to a doctor in thirty years. In other words, it had been the typical day.
Trauma is a 24/7 business. I had been on call from seven A.M. Thursday until seven A.M. Friday, meaning I’d had to handle all the patients who came through the door, and after that I’d had to work another regular twelve-hour shift, so I hadn’t gotten home until Friday night. Having a Saturday off was a rare event, and I was ready for some home time with my wife and kids. But first I needed a little me time—and that meant going for a run around the block. In my part of Tucson, in the mesquite-and-cactus-covered rolling hills north of the city, a block is about six miles around.
And now, shortly after ten A.M., and just five minutes into my run, this: “Trauma red, ten GSWs.”
There was a lot of information in that brief message. Under the University Medical Center trauma activation criteria, a trauma code red indicated a patient or patients coming in with any of a variety of serious injuries: penetrating injuries to the head, neck, or torso; traumatic brain injury; amputation of an extremity; traumatic cardiac arrest; and so on. Trauma codes White and Green indicate progressively less severe types of injuries. The codes set in motion a series of steps at the UMC Trauma Center to ensure that the proper levels of staffing and resources are available to deal with them.
“Ten GSWs” was even more specific. “GSW” is short for “gunshot wound.” It meant that somewhere out there were ten people who had been shot, ten people who were in desperate need of someone who knew all too well what damage bullets could inflict on a human body, and, more important, someone who knew how to fix it. In other words, ten people in desperate need of a trauma surgeon.
I turned around and started running back home.
I picked up the pace a bit, but I knew I didn’t have to sprint. Four years earlier, when I took on the job of creating a Level I trauma center at UMC, I had been determined to put together one of the best trauma teams of doctors and nurses and technicians in the country—and in my opinion, I had done just that. Other trauma surgeons were on duty, and I knew that until I got there they could handle anything that came in.
It wasn’t as if we hadn’t handled mass-casualty situations before. Even in Tucson, multiple gunshot victims were almost a Saturday-night ritual, and every now and then a chain-reaction pileup on the I-10 would flood the trauma center with a dozen badly injured people. Certainly in my fifteen years as a trauma surgeon, fifteen years in the urban battlefields of Seattle and Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, and as a forward-deployed US Navy surgeon in Afghanistan and Iraq, I had seen more than my share of individual and mass catastrophes. There was no reason to suspect that there would be anything unusual about this one.
Still running, I called my wife, Emily, and had the same conversation we had had so many times before.
“Emily, sorry, but there’s been a mass shooting, and I have to get back to the hospital . . . Yeah, I know it’s my day off, but I have to go . . . No, you don’t have to pick me up, I’ll be home in a couple of minutes. Could you do me a favor and put a clean set of scrubs in the car? I’ll change on the way . . . Thanks . . . I love you, too.”
I knew she was disappointed that I wouldn’t be spending the day with her and the kids, but I also knew that she understood. I loved being a trauma surgeon, but for Emily, being married to one wasn’t always easy. The job always came first.
I called in to the trauma center to get some more information. Details were still sketchy, but it appeared that a gunman, motive unknown, had opened fire outside a supermarket in a shopping mall, shooting into a crowd. A half dozen people were dead at the scene, and the wounded—maybe ten, maybe as many as twenty—were on their way to UMC by ground and air ambulance. No word yet on the extent or the seriousness of their injuries.
The timing of the thing was actually pretty lucky. Dr. Randy Friese was just coming off his shift, Dr. Narong Kulvatunyou was just starting his, and Dr. Bellal Joseph was making the rounds and caring for the patients in the ICU, so we had three exceptional trauma surgeons on-site. The fact that it was a Saturday morning was also a plus. If the shooting had happened on a Monday morning, the UMC operating rooms might have been crammed with patients undergoing planned surgeries, and since you can’t stop a surgery in progress to make room for another patient, no matter how great the emergency, we might have had to make do with the one OR that was always reserved for trauma cases. But since it was a Saturday, we’d have plenty of empty ORs if we needed them—which, as it turned out, we would.
I kept running. My phone rang again. It was Randy—Dr. Friese.
“I’m on the way,” I told him. Moments after we hung up, the first patient from the shooting rolled through the doors. It was a nine-year-old girl.
Her name, as I would later find out, was Christina-Taylor Green. A bullet had hit her abdomen, piercing the main artery, the aorta. The first emergency personnel at the scene had performed CPR on her, but she hadn’t responded. Unlike with heart-attack victims, CPR doesn’t really help people who are bleeding to death; they need to get to a trauma surgeon, and fast. It probably was already too late for this little girl, but the EMTs kept trying, transporting her to our trauma center and performing CPR all the way. Maybe there was a chance.
Dealing with mass-casualty trauma victims is about making choices—often life-or-death choices. The rule is simple. The most seriously injured patients who have a chance at living come first, the less seriously injured come next, and the dead and the certain to be dead have to be left to their fate. If you spend time and limited resources on those who can’t be saved, it might cost the life of another patient who could be saved.
It’s not an easy choice to make—believe me, I know. In my career I’ve had to make hundreds of decisions like that. Once in Iraq I had to look into the faces of twelve mortally wounded but still living men and declare them “expectant”—that is, certain to die. They were sent to a separate area and left untreated so I could help dozens of others who could be saved. It’s something you train for and practice over and over, but in real life it’s not like the drills. You never get over it, and you never forget the faces. But there are times when deciding who lives and who dies is part of your job—and if you think too much about what you’re doing, you wouldn’t be able to do it.
So, yes, the little girl shot down at the shopping center probably was beyond hope. Under the protocols, a trauma patient who arrives at the trauma center without having responded to CPR for fifteen minutes is considered dead—and this little girl was beyond that time frame. But Dr. Randy Friese hadn’t wanted to give up on her. She was the first victim to arrive at the trauma center, and while he knew more victims were on the way, at the moment he had time, the help, and the resources to try to bring her back. This wasn’t the battlefield, where helping one apparently hopeless patient might very well cost the next patient his life. Maybe there was a chance she could be brought back to life. She was a little girl. He had to try.
There had been no time for prepping or getting her to the operating room. Moments after she was wheeled into the trauma room, surrounded by a carefully orchestrated swarm of residents and nurses, Randy performed a resuscitative thoracotomy on her, opening her chest and massaging her heart with his hands, trying to get it to start beating again. But it was no use—and now other shooting victims who needed him were starting to come through the doors. Randy had to move on.
Trauma surgery is a hard and sometimes seemingly heartless business. You do what you can, with what you have, in the time you have to do it. If a little girl dies, you grit your teeth and steel your heart and move on to the still living. You cry later.
My feelings about what had happened to this young girl were mixed. Rage that such a thing was allowed to happen in our society. Grief for a life lost so young. Compassion for the anguish her family would go through. I had a daughter myself, not much older than Christina-Taylor, and I knew that the heartache they would have to endure would never go away.
There was one other emotion I felt about this young girl’s death, and that was a sense of scientific frustration—frustration that the new techniques we were developing for the treatment of trauma victims hadn’t already been available for Christina-Taylor and countless other trauma victims. For fifteen years I and other medical researchers had been looking for a way to stop or at least slow down the dying process in trauma victims, a way to buy them that most precious commodity, time—time for us to repair the damage caused by bullets or knives or blunt force before the victims’ lifeblood drained away and their hearts and brains and other organs irretrievably shut down. And we were convinced we had found the answer in the form of “suspended animation,” a way to dramatically cool down the trauma victim’s body and stop the dying process in its tracks until the damage could be repaired. It’s like a pause button on your remote. It pauses you between life and death, giving us the time to sew up the holes you are bleeding from.
I know, it sounds futuristic, maybe even Frankensteinian. But it works. The FDA would soon approve clinical testing of the suspended-animation procedure on human trauma victims at trauma centers across the country, including mine. Of course, this came far too late to help Christina-Taylor. But I’m convinced that in ten or fifteen years the process will be used in every trauma center, and even possibly by the EMTs in the field, and thousands of lives could be saved—if we devoted sufficient resources to it. Not for the first time, or the last, I found myself wishing that we as a nation would spend even a thousandth as much money and resources developing ways to save lives as we spend on coming up with new ways to take lives.
But I couldn’t dwell on that now. Randy called with some more information on the second shooting victim who had been rushed in through the doors, just moments after Christina-Taylor was declared dead. This part was unusual.
“Peter, one of the GSWs is a US congresswoman,” Randy said. “Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She’s been shot in the head.”
Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords was an attractive, popular, politically moderate Democratic congresswoman who had represented the Tucson area in Congress since 2006. She was married to Navy Captain Mark Kelly, a jet fighter pilot who became an astronaut and a Space Shuttle pilot and commander. The fact that a congresswoman had been gunned down in a parking lot in her home district was certainly a tragedy, and I knew it would generate an enormous amount of news media and public attention.
But the fact that she was a congresswoman didn’t make me run any faster—because medically it was irrelevant. Throughout my career as a trauma surgeon, I had always maintained a single overriding principle: everybody gets treated the same. It had never mattered to me—or, as I insisted, to the people who worked for me—whether the patient was a cop or a robber, an American soldier or an enemy insurgent, a rich man or a poor one, a congresswoman or a regular citizen on the street. The courts and the lawyers and the insurance companies could sort it all out later, but in my trauma center, in my operating room, in my intensive care unit, they all got the best medical treatment we could possibly give them.
Randy filled me in on Giffords’s condition. She had a gunshot wound on the left side of her forehead and another wound on the left side in the back of the head. This meant that the bullet might have gone through the left side of the brain. This was bad news and good news.
The bad news, of course, was that she had been shot in the brain at all. Statistically, being shot in the brain means that your chances of dying are 90 percent, and if you do survive, the chances are high that you’ll be technically alive but in a vegetative state.
On the other hand, the fact that the bullet might have passed through only one side of her brain was relatively good news to me. It meant she had a chance. If the bullet passes from one side to the other, it’s usually fatal, with no chance of survival. The statistics have shown that this results in certain death.
It may sound strange, but the fact that the injuries had been caused by a bullet was also a positive, because traumatic brain injuries from bullets are sometimes easier to handle than other types of brain injuries. The holes caused by bullets can kill you because of the bleeding, but at the same time the bullet hole also allows the pressure on the brain to be relieved. If you have really bad traumatic brain injury from blunt forces instead of penetrating forces, the pressure from bleeding inside the skull can kill you, as the pressure and swelling cause the brain cells to die from circulation being cut off to the individual brain cells. It may even push the brain down and out the large hole at the base of the skull, a process called herniation. Herniation results in certain brain death.
But from what Randy was telling me about the congresswoman’s condition, I knew exactly what was going on even before I saw her. It was something I had seen far too many times before.
“She followed my commands,” Randy said. “She kicked her left leg and squeezed my hand with her left hand when I asked her to.”
“Fantastic!” I said. There was silence. Later I wondered if he was confused by my response. But to me this really was fantastic news. I knew instantly that she was going to live. In just a couple of sentences in a very short conversation, I pictured her entire scenario. She was alive, she had brain function, and the bullet hadn’t crossed the midline, meaning it had injured only one side of the brain and it hadn’t gone from one side to the other. Most of the patients who are shot in the brain can’t function at all and are comatose, and if they aren’t comatose they are barely moving or combative.
But the congresswoman could hear and respond, which meant there was a great deal of function still left in her brain. In my mind I could even envision the bullet track. It had injured her left brain, which meant she wasn’t able to move the right side of her body. But her right brain was uninjured, which was why she could move the left side of her body. The right side of the brain controls movement on the left side of the body and the left side controls movement on the right side; the brain connections cross in the middle. That’s why bullets crossing the middle are so devastating. The speech center is usually in the left side of the brain, in an area called the Broca’s area, and that may have been injured or just bruised. She couldn’t talk, and that’s why she kicked her left leg. She was frustrated that she couldn’t talk! She squeezed with her left hand because the right brain was intact. It all made sense.
All this was about as much good news as a person with a bullet through her brain could hope for. It would be days, weeks, even months before we could know what the long-term impact of her injuries would be, whether she would be able to recover her faculties, completely or in part, or whether she would be reduced to a vegetative state. I didn’t know what the rest of her life would be like. But I had seen this type of injury many times, and after those first few seconds of talking to Randy I was confident that she could survive.
“Fantastic,” I had said—and I meant it.
“Get her tubed and scanned,” I said to Randy. “Then line her up while they get ready in the OR for her.” In other words, I wanted a tube inserted into her trachea to keep her airway open, and a quick CT scan—a computed tomography X-ray—on her brain for the neurosurgeons. I also wanted to get her lined up in the trauma bay before taking her to the OR—“lined up” meaning the insertion of a small catheter into the radial artery in her wrist, and a large venous catheter into the large vein that courses under the collarbone and goes straight to the heart. That would allow us to give her a lot of blood and other fluids to keep her alive while the neurosurgeons tried to stop the bleeding from her brain. Trauma surgeons in the trauma bays could do the lining up more quickly than the anesthesiologist in the OR, so it would save precious time.
When I got home I ran directly to my car—the clean scrubs were on the passenger seat—and I headed for the trauma center, changing into my scrubs at the red lights I couldn’t beat. Some cities issue the trauma center director a car equipped with emergency lights and sirens, but Tucson wasn’t one of them. One of the trauma surgeons on my team had gotten three speeding tickets while rushing to the OR when we needed extra pairs of hands for emergency surgeries; the local traffic courts were unforgiving in the matter. But I was in a hurry. I’m not saying I broke any speed laws, but I made it to the hospital pretty darn quick.
As I got closer to the hospital, reports of the mass shooting were just starting to hit the news—and many of the early news reports were wrong, including one that said Congresswoman Giffords was dead. But the full story would soon come out.
The congresswoman had been holding a “Congress on Your Corner” event that morning, a meet-and-greet affair for constituents. She and her staff had set up a table outside the Safeway supermarket in a shopping center in the Casas Adobes neighborhood north of downtown Tucson. Some twenty to thirty people were lined up to speak with her. At 10:10 A.M., a twenty-two-year-old Tucson man named Jared Lee Loughner, armed with a Glock 19, a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, walked up to her and shot her in the head at point-blank range. He then turned the gun on others standing nearby and emptied the pistol’s extended thirty-three-round magazine; every round he fired hit someone. He stopped to reload but dropped his spare magazine onto the ground. A woman who was in line grabbed it while others tackled him to the ground. The first paramedics arrived six minutes later.
Five people were dead at the scene, their bodies left in place while investigators from the Pima County sheriff’s office—and soon the FBI—took photographs and collected evidence. The dead were Dorothy Morris, a seventy-six-year-old retired secretary; Phyllis Schneck, a seventy-nine-year-old Tucson homemaker; Dorwan Stoddard, a seventy-six-year-old retired construction worker; Gabe Zimmerman, a thirty-year-old member of Giffords’s congressional staff; and Judge John Roll, a sixty-three-year-old US District Court chief judge who had stopped by the event to say hello to the congresswoman. Christina-Taylor Green was the sixth fatality.
Thirteen more people had been shot and wounded: an elderly man shot in the left chest and left leg; an elderly woman shot three times in the legs; a man shot in the right ankle; an elderly man who had suffered a grazing wound to the skull; a woman who had three gunshot wounds, including one to the left chest; a woman who was shot three times in the chest, abdomen, and right leg; a woman shot three times in the back and in both arms; a man who was shot in the right arm; a man shot in the knee and the back; a man who had been hit in the face and leg; a man shot in the right ankle; a man grazed in the leg; and a man shot in the chest and right leg. Seven of those wounded, the serious ones, were brought directly to the trauma center, and three were sent to the trauma center after being initially treated at a local hospital. The shooter, who was not injured, was taken off to jail.
Later there would be numerous stories of heroism during the shooting, stories of people protecting their loved ones with their own bodies and dying as a result, stories of people, even some who were wounded, charging the shooter, stories of people desperately trying to help the injured until the EMTs could arrive. Later, too, the justice system would try to figure out the motive for the shooting, to find some reason for it, but it would turn out that there was no reason, or at least no reason that any sane person could understand. The shooter had had a history of bizarre and disruptive behavior, the sort of guy that everyone knew had a mental problem, but in our free society there was nothing anybody could do about it. He had bought a gun at a Sportsman’s Warehouse, all very legally, and a month later he turned it on a crowd of innocent people.
It was the same old story. Another nut with a gun in America.
By the time I got to UMC, the pandemonium was building. Ambulances were stacked up a half dozen deep at the trauma center entrance, and air rescue helicopters were landing on the roof. There must have been about a hundred people in the trauma center—doctors, nurses, techs, EMTs, cops. Every one of our seven trauma bays was full, with teams of doctors and nurses huddled around an injured patient. The air was filled with voices, screams, ringing telephones.
To an outsider it probably would have looked like chaos, but it wasn’t. Everything was working exactly as it was supposed to, exactly the way we had trained for and done so many times already. My job now was to make sure that it continued that way, to take charge, take command, to make the critical life-and-death decisions that had to be made.
I didn’t feel any particular sense of anxiety or stress. I knew that for the victims and for their families this was almost certainly the worst day of their lives, and that for the people of Tucson and the nation this was a horrible and shocking tragedy. But I had spent my entire adult life planning for and handling situations like this. It was my job. It was what I did. It was what I lived for.
So you could say that for me, and for other members of the trauma center team, this was just another day at the office.
Another challenging, exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, heartbreaking, satisfying, bloody, bloody, bloody day at the office.
Table of Contents
1 Trauma Red 1
2 A Spear in the Belly 15
3 Navy Doc 33
4 Embracing the Suck 53
5 The Trauma Life 75
6 War 105
7 A Good Bad Day at Charlie Med 123
8 Lab Wars 153
9 January 8, 2011 171
10 Aftermath 197
Photo Credits 229
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