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.