#TraumaCenterNow: Why gun violence and trauma centers are a Jewish issue

by Daniel Kaplan
JCUA Community Organizer

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Yesterday, JCUA took part in an interfaith vigil with student and community groups comprising the Trauma Center Coalition.  Several dozen strong, we  marched to one of the most prestigious medical centers in the country: the University of Chicago Medical Center.  Our march was part of a greater campaign to address gun violence in the neighborhood and a lack of response from surrounding institutions.  Gun violence remains a crisis of epidemic proportions, particularly on Chicago’s south side near the medical center.  Yet while our city has six trauma centers for gunshot victims, not a single one is located on the south side.

For this reason, we held vigil as part of a broader week of action to demand the University of Chicago open a level 1 adult trauma center for the surrounding community.  While the University of Chicago operates a pediatric trauma center, it has not opened its doors for nearby adult victims of gun violence since 1988.  While reflecting on the crisis, we heard stories of mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who were gunned down within reach of the university.  Even though the medical center has the facilities to treat gunshot trauma, these people died in ambulance rides on the way to trauma centers elsewhere.

I was appalled to hear these stories from an area that many are calling a “trauma center desert“.  This desert covers an area with one of the city’s highest rates of gun violence.  Chicagoans in the trauma center desert are disproportionately black and lacking health insurance relative to better served parts of the city.  Listening to the testimony of lost loved ones, I could not help but wonder: why are our resources for treating gun violence completely absent in neighborhoods where they are the most needed?  Why has the University of Chicago not responded to this glaring disparity by reopening its center?

If family and community members were dying in trauma center deserts on the north side, would nearby universities respond differently?

Map of travel time for ambulances to trauma centers.  Neighborhoods with the darker shades have longer travel times.  Nearly all of the neighborhoods with the longest travel times are located on the south side. Sourced from WBEZ.

Preparing for the vigil, I reflected on why I care about trauma center deserts as a Jew.  What does my faith and tradition teach me about this issue?  In Judaism, we value the sanctity of life above nearly everything else.  That is why we can break nearly any mitzvah if it conflicts with preserving our own lives or another’s.  If a physician withholds service, his actions are tantamount to shedding blood and violating the 5th commandment – lo tirtzach (“do not kill”).

Opponents of the Trauma Center Coalition cite the financial cost and administrative requirements for maintaining a trauma center as too great an obstacle.  I find it difficult to fathom financial matters as an obstacle when the University of Chicago is one of the most elite and well endowed universities in the country.  Yes, these concerns are important and must be addressed.  However, they are secondary to our imperative to preserve life.  As long as this crisis persists we cannot allow dollars to overtake the priority of human lives.

While no one says it will be easy, the University of Chicago has the resources and the obligation to open a trauma center and eliminate the trauma center desert on the south side.  Our faith teaches us that it must be so.  Not only must the hospital uphold its duty to preserve human life, but also pursue justice by undoing the systemic forces have created this segregated access to trauma care.  In many ways, the lack of a trauma center on the south side is the result of a legacy of systematic denial of basic community services to communities of color in Chicago.   By not taking action, the university reinforces this structural segregation and takes a complicit stance in the gun violence epidemic plaguing our city.  This stance is not only negligent, it contributes to homicide deaths as much as guns and bullets.

It may sound harsh for advocates of the university to hear this critique.  The Trauma Center Coalition’s critics argue that the University of Chicago has made many contributions to the surrounding neighborhood though its leading medical research and community programs.  While the university’s prestige for its renowned research  institute and other programs are commendable, they do not offset the medical center’s lake of trauma care.  The University of Chicago Medical Center must remember it’s a hospital above all else.  It cannot forsake its mission to save the human lives in the area it serves.

In Medieval Spain, the great Rabbi and physician Maimonides would encourage medical professionals to recite a prayer every day.  I believe this prayer holds great resonance for the University of Chicago Medical Center:
“Do not allow thirst for profit, nor ambition for renown and admiration, to interfere with my profession, for these are the enemies of truth and of love for mankind…be ready to cheerfully help and support rich and poor, good and bad, enemy as well as friend.  In the sufferer let me see only the human being.”

May we have a trauma center for the south side at the University of Chicago.  It is the right thing to do, and the Jewish thing to do.

Action and Information Steps

For more information on the trauma center desert, read this report by Student for Health Equity.
The Trauma Center Coalition continues to hold action today and tomorrow. Join JCUA in the final march for the an open trauma center Friday at 4 pm.

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