How Much Is a Life Worth?

Mehves Konuk

If you know what happened here, looking down the four roads that lead away from the intersection at 61st and Cottage Grove reveals much more than brick and tarmac. Facing north, beyond the squat, red fire hydrants you can see far down the avenue that Damian Turner was hurtled along in an ambulance five months ago as he was driven more than ten miles to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He was shot at this very crossing. At 12:08am on August 15, officers reached West Woodlawn where they found bullet casings scattered around a bleeding young African-American man who would be declared dead an hour and fifteen minutes later. Some of that time was spent carting the dying Turner north, past the University of Chicago Medical Center that stands just two blocks away from the intersection where he was shot.

There are no level-one trauma centers on the South Side–a part of the city where the incidence of severe trauma from gunshot wounds is especially high. Theoretically, South Side trauma cases caused by knife and gun crime should be taken to Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, however Christ’s emergency room is under so much pressure that many are sent to Stroger, Mount Sinai or Northwestern, something that ambulances often anticipate, taking their casualties directly to the latter hospitals. So it happened in the case of Damian Turner, a youth activist and founder of the organization Fearless Leading Youth (FLY), the youth wing of South Side Together Organizing for Power (STOP). FLY organizes against youth violence on the South Side, encouraging rehabilitation instead of detention as the primary solution to juvenile delinquency. Since Turner’s death, FLY has focused on petitioning the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) to build a level-one trauma unit.

Claire Hungerford

“Damian had dreams as big as those of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Rev. Andre Smith, a candidate for 20th Ward Alderman. “He was happy, energetic; [he] loved life, loved people,” said his mother, Sheila Rush. A well-loved member of his neighborhood and a talented musician, Damian used to rap about FLY and its struggle to “keep the peace” in the face of “guys gettin’ shot, kids gettin’ beat”. He raps in the song “We gon’ stand tall,” “we are the youth from the hood tryin’ to make things good” and indeed the 30-strong group is made up largely of youth from some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. “Damian Turner was our motivator,” said a spokesperson for FLY in an interview. “The cost of his life was not just emotional, there was a cost to the community.”

The tragedy of Damian Turner’s death is undisputed. How to respond to it, however, is. FLY’s argument is relatively straightforward. “I don’t think [trauma victims] should be taken to Northwestern when there’s a university right there. I mean, I think it’s just stupid, they should just give us a trauma center,” said FLY’s representative.

A teach-in about the trauma center issue held at the UofC. Photo by Claire Hungerford

The UCMC’s response presents a more complicated picture. The UCMC did set up a trauma center in 1986, but it was closed in 1988, ironically because of the high number of patients it received. The trauma center had to divert resources from the UCMC’s pediatric trauma center, burn unit and neonatal intensive care units, which are all also the only ones on the South Side. “Achieving geographic balance on trauma care must not come at the expense of such lifesaving services” the UCMC said in a statement last week. “A trauma center has specific and extensive requirements for facilities and staffing that the Medical Center cannot now meet, such as a dedicated trauma-only operating room in close proximity to the emergency room.” These difficulties would now be further amplified because of the recent closure of Provident Hospital’s emergency care center. Indeed even FLY admitted that the UCMC’s trauma center would cost them $1.5 million a year when in operation. It is also worth pointing out that Chicago has a good trauma network–even on the South Side transport times are better than the national average. The current distribution of trauma centers is not at odds with the state law requiring that a patient can be no farther than 30 minutes from a trauma center anywhere in the state.

But 30 minutes is a long time for a trauma victim, and the disparity in response times across the city’s geography has broader implications—especially in light of the deadly racial inequities that result from it. The fight for a trauma center seems inextricably linked with a struggle for institutional racial equality.

A die-in on the UofC quad. Photo by Mehves Konuk

Much of the problem comes down to a chilling conflict of interest between the public community and the bare economics of a profit-conscious private institution. One of the reasons that trauma centers are so expensive is that they are required to treat patients who do not have health insurance. In the mostly African-American low-income sector in question, this translates into an ugly correspondence between race and money. In 2010, Medicaid and Medicare shortfalls cost the UCMC almost $200 million in pure losses. Were the UCMC to start a trauma center, South Side residents would have a better chance of surviving wounds from gunshots and car accidents. But were the UCMC to start a trauma center, it would also lose a lot of money.

The UofC has worked tirelessly to promote its role in the community, especially in the last decade, but according to protesters, health care is one place it is falling short in its commitment to the South Side. “The [UCMC] felt like they weren’t benefiting from a trauma center…but they could benefit from it more now. You can see on the news, people are dying from trauma more and more.”

Claire Hungerford

There is precedent for a research hospital effectively maintaining a trauma unit. The University of Pennsylvania is a castigating comparison to draw for the UofC. Its trauma center serves the largely poor Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey regions, whose total population is in excess of 15 million. It is nationally and internationally recognized as a model of excellence in healthcare, and it absorbs its losses in profits made by other divisions of the hospital.

So building a trauma center could be done, but it would be expensive. The more confounding question that the UCMC is asking is whether or not it is even their role to provide the trauma center. The UCMC is already one of the city’s leading providers of medical services to the poor, and while the state absorbs some of the cost of trauma centers, the hospital has to absorb the rest. Also, adding a trauma center at the UCMC would not be a total fix. Ideally a South Side trauma center would be located further south than Hyde Park. There are also more systemic problems that require the attention of the UofC and other public and private institutions. More than 40 percent of all 15-29 year old trauma patients at Stroger Hospital are victims of penetrating traumas (such as gunshots or stab wounds)–a figure well above the national average. The question of the trauma center leads to another: why was Damian Turner shot to begin with?

Still, contemplating the vacancy that Damian Turner’s death left on the corner of 61st and Cottage Grove makes it hard to imagine the real cost of his death. Damian Turner was a hero for his family and friends, a compelling example for his peers on the South Side. Both wise and streetwise, he inspired youth from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds to question the conditions of their lives and to work to improve them. What price will be paid now that Damian Turner (and many others) will never again walk this intersection? Can we live with a system that allows death by practical limitation?