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U of C Medicine wants to raise its age limit at pediatric trauma center

Amid pressure to create an adult trauma center on the South Side, the University of Chicago Medicine said Monday that they plan to request approval to raise the age limit of its pediatric trauma center by two years to include 16- and 17-year-old children.

The U. of C. Medicine says it will submit the necessary paperwork with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) to make the change at its Comer Children’s Hospital. If it does get approval,  U of C’s Medical Center President Sharon O’Keefe said the pediatric trauma center unit should be able to accommodate that broader group of patients in about a year, once it gets additional physicians and staff to treat them.

“This has been under consideration for quite some time now. But that being said, as I would say the largest health care provider on the South Side of Chicago, we actually pay close attention to all of the voices in our community,” O’Keefe said. “The issue of pediatric trauma and the devastating events that have occurred to children in our community has been the strongest motivation that we’ve had around this.”

O’Keefe said approximately 120 more children would be treated.

No information about the estimated cost of this expansion was given, but O’Keefe said it was not a significant cost.

The IDPH couldn’t immediately be reached. But a letter that appeared to be from IDPH, sent on Oct. 14 to Southside Together Organizing for Power, said if a pediatric trauma center wanted to “voluntarily increase the age of trauma patients for whom it would provide trauma care, the EMS administrative code would not restrict the upper age limit of a pediatric trauma center at 15 years.”

Activists from Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) and other groups have repeatedly campaigned for a level 1 trauma center for adults since the death of 18-year-old Damian Turner in 2010. Turner was shot blocks away from the university but was taken across the city to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and ultimately died. A similar case happened last year with 19-year-old Kevin Ambrose, who also died.

It is not known whether Ambrose or Turner would have survived if they had been taken to a closer hospital. But that was the argument made by the protesters.

In the interim of getting a full trauma center, activists have long argued for the U. of C. Medicine to raise the age limit to its pediatric trauma center, which currently treats children up to 15-years-old.

Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church in Bronzeville said the expansion was a step in the right direction.

“The university in some cases has been saying how they cannot do it, and the community has been saying that they can do it,” Harris said. “This first step shows that somebody is paying attention and trying to figure out ways to meet the needs of the community.”

But he stressed that more needs to be done, to fully serve the needs of adults on the South Side.

Veronica Morris-Moore, a spokeswoman for STOP, agreed, saying U. of C’s announcement is a “huge victory.” Yet, “we will continue with our efforts to get the University of Chicago to assist in providing … a South Side adult level 1 trauma center,” Morris-Moore said.

O’Keefe said they are willing to be involved in discussions about creating a “regional effort.” But building a new trauma center for adults on their own would be “a very different kind of challenge for us,” she said.

“Implementing an adult trauma service would take away capacity in essential services that we now provide to the community and quite honestly to the region,” O’Keefe said.

Chicago has four trauma centers for adults in Chicago. While most residents of the North and West sides are close to a trauma center, residents of the South Side have to travel further to get to a hospital that can treat trauma incidents like a car accident or a gunshot wound.

It has been that way on the South Side since 1989, when the university and Michael Reese Hospital closed their trauma centers. Both hospitals at that time cited the inability to maintain their trauma center because they were losing too much money.