As the pearly gates swung open on May 1, 2019 and Donald Trunkey strode through, head held high, wry smile on his face – I am certain that St. Peter stood, offered a crisp salute and yielded his post. That’s because everywhere Donald Trunkey went, he was, by the sheer power of his personality and intellect, totally, completely and unequivocally in charge. His natural charisma, quick wit and his high-minded values made him beyond formidable. Everyone wanted to be around him. Everyone wanted to be like him. Everyone wanted to be him. He was a force for good.
He was in a category all his own – a man of utmost integrity – I’ve met no other single human being more capable of leading a righteous cause, the right way, for the right reason. Not only did Donald Trunkey change the national consciousness regarding care of the injured patient – and in the process save the lives of thousands upon thousands, he brought generations of surgeons, nurses and medics along with him on the journey. I know because I was one of them. If you were to ask him why, he would have quickly served up a humorous quip and likely never answered the question. But in the exchange, you would have garnered the answer – because it was the right thing to do. He was a force for good.
He had intensity without tenseness and a powerful mind without an ounce of arrogance or guile. When Donald Trunkey spoke, everyone listened. An autodidact with far reaching intellectual curiosity across a broad range of topics, he had the unique capability of captivating those around him with his skills as a raconteur and the practicality of his approach. After having met Donald Trunkey some years before while working with my mentor, Bill Schwab at the University of Pennsylvania, I vividly remember receiving an unexpected phone call from him in 1997. It’s hard to describe the feeling in those brief seconds between the moment my assistant informed me of the call and the moment I heard his voice. But I can still feel it now as I recount the story. It was as if I knew something really important was about to happen. Dr. Trunkey told me that there was a hospital in eastern North Carolina looking for a new Chief of Trauma. He told me that they were sincerely committed to building the center and the surrounding trauma system. They needed leadership and he urged me to go and visit and consider it. He also made it clear that the people who lived there needed help and that the mortality rates were inordinately high for injured patients. With no expectation of ever actually going to such a place, I respectfully followed Dr. Trunkey’s recommendation, interviewed for the job and well, as you might expect, took the leap of faith that he proffered. I left Penn, went to East Carolina University and for the next 14 years, endeavored to follow in his footsteps and change the fate of injured patients in that corner of the world. He was a force for good.
What can we do when these sorts of monolithic characters move on to otherworldliness? How can we express all that they have meant to us? How do we explain to those around us how they have changed our lives and, in this case, saved countless lives? To me, the answer is simple: live as he lived. Do right as he did right. Carry the mantle for those who cannot carry it themselves. And work as Donald Trunkey worked because he truly was – a force for good.