Dr. Selwyn Rogers lowers his 6-foot-4-inch frame into a chair in the conference room at the University of Chicago Medicine, a warm smile letting a sigh escape.
The newly hired chief of the Section for Trauma and Acute Care Surgery — and founding director of the trauma center under construction — has gone nonstop since assuming the position a week ago.
There’s a lot to do and not much time.
The new $39 million Emergency Department is scheduled to open a year from now, then its Level 1 adult trauma center — the first on the South Side in 25 years — will begin accepting adult trauma patients in spring 2018.
“The opportunity to launch a world-class trauma center at a venerable institution such as University of Chicago is a once in a lifetime opportunity, particularly in the context of the larger social construct that we are living in right now,” said Rogers, 50, a nationally renowned surgeon, health care administrator and trauma care expert who comes to the job from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.
“The amount of intentional violence happening in targeted areas of the city aligns with my vision for the potential opportunity for University of Chicago Medicine to do something transformative on the South Side, to be a national model for how a hospital breaks down its walls and reaches out into the community to make an incredible impact on the health of a population,” he said. “I could not imagine a greater aspiration.”
The university launched a national search in June for a leader for the long-awaited trauma center in a violence-besieged area devoid of adult trauma care since Michael Reese Hospital closed in 1991.
The ideal candidate, officials said then, would not only be a skilled physician administrator, but bring expertise on violence intervention. Chicago saw more than 780 people killed last year — its deadliest in over two decades.
The hospital found its candidate in Rogers, a U.S. Virgin Islands-born, Harvard-educated clinician who has spent the last 16 years in trauma care, the past two as vice president and chief medical officer at the Galveston hospital.
“In approximately 15 months time, we’re going to be opening a trauma center, and we needed an experienced surgeon who will be able to do that in an outstanding way,” said Kenneth Polonsky, executive vice president for medical affairs. “But in addition to that, we want our trauma center to be a leader in thinking about violence. How can you prevent it? How can you identify people who are at risk? How can you reduce the risk of a recurrence in people who have already been involved? Dr. Rogers is extraordinarily well-qualified for that.”
Rogers was born in St. Thomas. His parents divorced when he was 3. He grew up poor in St. Croix, raised by his mother and extended family, who planted in him a love of education. Rogers said his father did not re-emerge in his life until he came to the U.S. for college, attending Harvard on a full scholarship.
“I had the audacity of ignorance. All I knew about the idea of becoming a doctor is someone who used his love of science to help people, and so I opened up the Encyclopedia Britannica, and under the section of medical schools, there was Johns Hopkins and Harvard,” said Rogers, who is divorced and the father of three boys, ages 14, 17 and 21.
“I applied to both and was accepted to both,” he said.
After medical school, Rogers obtained a master’s in public health from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, then did his residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. After that was two years of teaching at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, and 14 years teaching at Harvard Medical School.
He returned to Brigham, and spent the next nine years moving up through the leadership. He was chief of Trauma, Burn and Surgical Critical Care when he left in 2012 for a position as surgeon-in-chief at Temple University Health Systems in Philadelphia. Two years later, he was recruited at Galveston.
“It was in North Philadelphia, an impoverished part of the city with challenges of hopelessness, helplessness, homelessness and lack of opportunity and education, that I became interested in the broader impact that a health system can have on a community. In Galveston, I began thinking critically about how a hospital can be less of a place about illness and more a place about wellness,” Rogers said.
“I was on the sidelines looking at and listening to all the things that were happening in Chicago. And similar themes of helplessness, homelessness, hopelessness, lack of opportunity and education, and the lost lives, propelled me to engage in this new challenge.”
U. of C.’s new E.R., which broke ground in September, is part of the hospital system’s $269 million expansion, and culmination of a five-year battle by South Side activists to get an adult trauma center on the U. of C. campus.
The hospital’s federally mandated Community Health Needs Assessment, conducted from late fall 2015 through spring 2016, found residents in 12 ZIP codes pleading for help in grappling with mental and physical health aspects of the city’s spiraling violence. To that end, Rogers also has been appointed executive vice president for community health engagement, and will oversee the system’s civic and community engagement arm.
“When we were meeting all the candidates, what stood out with Dr. Rogers was his incredible, on the ground experience of actually running a busy trauma service at a prestigious institution, but the other part is his intense interest in violence and violence prevention and connecting to the community. And not just as he would say, ‘patching people together,’ but really understanding how we can make an impact in terms of trauma within our community,” said U. of C. Medicine President Sharon O’Keefe. “It was just a natural fit.”
Hitting the ground running, Rogers is ready to bring his vast experience to bear, and weigh in on Chicago’s violence.
“As a father of three African-American boys, every time I see and hear about another victim of intentional violence, it could be my son. It could be my child,” he said. “I’m not that special. I’m not a genius. I’m just someone who learned to love to learn at a young age, worked hard at learning, and was rewarded positively for learning, just the same way that if you ran track really fast and you got positive reinforcement, you keep doing it. We have to think critically about how we as a society, working together, can make that difference.”