Don Trunkey 1937–2019 from Injury Journal

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Nothing lasts forever. However, for most of us, Don Trunkey was the innovator of modern trauma care and it’s hard to imagine a world which he is not part of. As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated it is not length of life, but depth of life that matters. Indeed, his talent, passion for improvement, and vision to look into the future were unique and his contributions to the evolution of trauma care have been priceless.

Donald D Trunkey FACS, was born in Eastern Washington and went to medical school at University of Washington. He served in the US Army in the mid 60 s in Germany and completed his surgical training in San Francisco. It was from San Francisco that his seminal “Two Counties” [1] paper was published where he convincingly showed that where a trauma system existed the mortality was substantially lower than where it did not. It was this paper, more than any other in the contemporary literature which led to the drive to systematise trauma care around the world.

Another of Don’s seminal papers was that on the trimodal pattern of death after injury which was published in Scientific American in 1983 [2]. In that paper he outlined that death after trauma was either immediate, usually as a result of catastrophic brain or torso injury, in hours as a result of uncontrollable haemorrhage, or in 2–3 weeks as a result on multiple organ dysfunction itself, a long term consequence of poor initial control of haemorrhage. While true in 1983, the trimodal pattern of death no longer exists because, through the efforts of Don and other trauma surgeons, effective early trauma care, particularly consequent on near-universal uptake of ATLS/EMST teaching, has resulted in effective early haemorrhage treatment.

Noteworthy, he was also a leading figure in highlighting the challenges of managing multiple injured patients with associated head injuries what he described as a ‘crisis’ in trauma care [3]. He suggested that ‘neurosurgery should step up to the plate and provide coverage for Level I and Level II trauma centres at a reasonable cost, and went as far as to state that ‘If neurosurgery cannot or does not want to provide coverage, they should let other surgeons provide coverage’ [3].

Professor Trunkey also was one of the first clinicians to express his concerns about the omissions of the USA public policy in relation to recreational use of drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana and reported a direct link between alcohol or drug use and crime, corruption, violence, and health problems, calling for the need of formulating a workable public policy [4].

Professor Trunkey’s academic record lists 317 publications and 10,118 citations but his only publication in Injury occurred in 2000 and was a comparative study looking at trauma outcomes in Oregon Health Sciences University and Stoke-on-Trent [5]. This paper, co-authored by John Templeton and Peter Oakley amongst others showed that although raw mortalities were different, when casemix was considered there were no significant differences between the centres. This highlighted how important it was to carefully consider casemix in any comparison of trauma outcome.

Don’s early military career was bookended by a role in the First Gulf War 1990–1991 where he served as an advisor to the US Forces in Saudi Arabia. He dealt with a number of operational and cultural obstacles that prompted him to publish a commentary in the March 1993 edition of Archives of Surgery called “Lessons Learned” [6]. This document paved the way for how the U.S. Department of Defence trained its trauma personnel.

Don was a giant on the US trauma stage but also a frequent traveller who spread his knowledge and influence around the world. Apart from his Honorary FRACS and FRCS(Eng) he was also an honorary fellow of the surgical colleges of Ireland, Edinburgh, Glasgow, South Africa and Brazil.

Don was inspirational, enigmatic, friendly and forceful all at the same time. He influenced generations of young doctors, in surgery and in other disciplines, to improve trauma outcomes and contribute to the teaching and delivery of optimal trauma care. At conferences and courses he was an enthusiastic teacher and a challenging mentor. He conveyed the absolute necessity of taking action when time critical injuries were present and was never afraid to do so.

Donald D. Trunkey was a legend in every aspect of the word and the trauma community will be much poorer with his passing. His legacy however, of improved trauma systems, trauma care and trauma outcomes, is very much alive and society as a whole will be grateful for the career long contribution of this trauma giant.


  1. West, J.G., Trunkey, D.D., and Lim, R.C. Systems of trauma care: a study of two counties. Arch Surg. 1979; 114: 455–460
  2. Trunkey, Donald D. Trauma. Sci Am. 1983; 249: 28–35
  3. Trunkey, D.D. The emerging crisis in trauma care: a history and definition of the problem. Clin Neurosurg. 2007; 54: 200–205
  4. Trunkey, D.D. and Bonnono, C. A rational approach to formulating public policy on substance abuse. J Trauma Inj Infect Crit Care. 2005; 59: S61–S66
  5. Templeton, J., Oakley, P.A., MacKenzie, G., Cook, A., Brand, D., Mullins, R.J. et al. A comparison of patient characteristics and survival in two trauma centres located in different countries. Injury. 2000;31: 493–501
  6. Trunkey, D. Lessons learned. Arch Surg. 1993; 128: 261–264

Influential Champion for Optimal Care of Injured Patients by Richard J Mullins

Dr. Donald Trunkey’s skill, judgment and indefatigable determination as a trauma surgeon has saved the lives of thousands of patients. In addition, his leadership in the development of trauma systems has saved the lives of millions around the world. In the late 1960s Don was trained as a trauma surgeon at San Francisco General Hospital, a busy urban trauma center. Don recognized that a reason for the success of San Francisco General Hospital was that a surgical team capable of managing a wide range of injuries was always available in the hospital and ready to respond immediately when an ambulance delivered an injured patient to the emergency department.

The team approach was essential to prevent immediate death in injured patients from obstructed airway, impaired breathing and shock. As Don Trunkey pointed out in his manuscript Trauma published in Scientific American (1983; Vol. 249:28-35) a coordinated team was able to establish quickly a list of the patient’s injuries, and with prompt treatment prevent death during the “golden hour” following injury. The foundation of Don Trunkey’s advocacy for trauma systems was based upon lessons he had learned in the care of individual injured patients.

Don Trunkey has been a prolific scholar. He has written over 100 manuscripts and book chapters in which he described the optimal treatment of a wide range of specific traumatic injuries. Additionally, Don Trunkey has authored over forty manuscripts that examined the influence of implementation of trauma systems of the survival of injured patients. His influential scholarship in support of trauma systems are evidence of his strategic vision regarding optimal health care.

A seminal paper published by Don Trunkey with co-authors John West and Robert Lim entitled: Systems of trauma care. A study of two counties (Arch Surg. 1979 Apr;114(4):455-60.) had an enduring influence. The authors studied the patients who died of injury in Orange County, California, which did not have a trauma system, and patients who died of injury in San Francisco, California, which did have a trauma system. These authors determined that in Orange County many injured patients died preventable deaths, while it was a rare event in San Francisco. This study was used to convince the Orange County government officials to implement a trauma system.

After the trauma system was established, and injured patients were taken to designated trauma centers, the outcome study was then repeated; preventable deaths had declined substantially in Orange County. This classic paper has been praised as a model of a process that could bring about implementation of a trauma system. The West, Trunkey and Lim study of preventable deaths in injured patients was duplicated by researchers around the United States who made similar observations of high rates of death among seriously injured patients treated in a hospital that is not a trauma center. These preventable death rates became the incentive for implementation of multiple other trauma systems.

Don Trunkey has been an influential leader in Academic surgical organizations around the world. From the leadership podiums of these organizations Don Trunkey advocated for these organizations to make optimal trauma care of injured patients a priority. His influence on public understanding of medical issues has been enhanced by his persuasive style of presentation and articulate speeches. On one occasion he was featured on a documentary television show (Operation Lifeline. 1978-79) demonstrating the fulltime commitment that surgeons needed to make to treat seriously traumatized patients in those first critical minutes following injury.

In the time period 1978 to 1985 Don Trunkey was an active participant and then leader of the Committee on Trauma of the American College of Surgeons. Don Trunkey described that he and his colleagues on the Committee were “busy trauma surgeons, and we wanted to change the care of trauma patients in the United States.” Don worked with the other members of the Committee on Trauma to establish programs that delivered enduring improvements to the care of injured patients. These programs include the Advanced Trauma Life Support course that has subsequently achieved worldwide distribution.

The Committee members published a book that described what trauma centers needed to provide optimal care-i.e. Resources for Optimal Care of Injured Patients. During Dr Trunkey’s leadership of the Committee on Trauma that organization established a program that verified hospitals had the resources needed to function as trauma centers. There were critics of the process to provide oversight of trauma centers. Undeterred, Don persisted as a candid advocate for having seriously injured patients treated in trauma centers where an experienced team was continually ready.

During his military service also called for optimal of casualties of war.
From 1962 to 1964 Captain Don Trunkey, US Army Medical Corps, Reserves, served in Germany as a general medical officer. He returned to a military in service 1985. He was 48 years old, Professor and Chair of Surgery at Oregon Health & Sciences University and decided to apply for a commission as a surgeon the US Army reserves, explaining that he was “concerned there were not enough surgeons in the Army”. He would later say his only regret was that he did not return to the Army reserves sooner.

Colonel Trunkey and his hospital unit was called to duty for Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the fall of 1990. His military hospital was in Riyad, Saudi Arabia and treated injured form the SCUD missile attacks, and wounded soldiers evacuated from the battlefield. At the end of what was a brief war, when others were proclaiming success with a low death rates, Colonel Trunkey wrote an after-action report that was critical of several aspects of the Army Medical Corps response to casualties. He provided several recommendations for how the care of casualty could be improved.

One enduring influence of Colonel Trunkey on the care of casualties of war was implementation of training programs in busy civilian trauma centers where military surgeons could acquire experience in the care of seriously injured patients. Multiple training programs were implemented and substantially improved the care provided to wounded soldiers, sailors and Marines during the war on terror following September 11, 2001 attack.

Thousands of surgeons have met Don Trunkey and been inspired by his wisdom and dedication to the care of injured patient. Many young surgeons have vivid memories of Professor Trunkey taking an interest in their work. His ability to inspire surgeons has meant that Don Trunkey will have an enduring influence on the optimal care of injured patients long after his retirement through the work of subsequent trauma surgeons who perpetuate his commitment to the optimal care of injured patients.
October 8, 2018
Richard J Mullins, MD, FACS.