Trauma surgeon criticizes federal system - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Trauma surgeon criticizes federal system

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Posted: Friday, September 9, 2005 6:11 pm | Updated: 8:13 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

BATON ROUGE, La. - His house on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans bears the name Tsa-La-Gi, "medicine man" in Cherokee. If he ever gets back to it, Dr. Norman McSwain may want to rename it "rain man."

As Hurricane Katrina drowned his beloved city, its swirling waters crippling Charity Hospital where he was chief of trauma surgery, McSwain called the media and unleashed a flood of criticism at the trickle of federal aid for stranded patients.

The irony is that if anybody had connections with government officials, you'd think it would be McSwain. He is part of a network of surgeons required to be at their respective hospitals and on call whenever Air Force One and the president are in the vicinity.

"Wheels down to wheels up," is how McSwain described his duty, which extends back through several presidential administrations.

He also has been in the military, has worked for NASA, and is chief surgeon for the New Orleans Police Department. A friend, Jennifer O'Brien, a health care consultant in Chicago, recalled being at dinner with him a few years ago when his pager kept going off.

"He made a pledge that if a cop so much as cuts himself at a barbecue, he'd take care of it," she said.

McSwain, 68, graduated from the University of the South, went to medical school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, and did his residency at Grady Hospital in Atlanta.

Asked by an interviewer for the American Medical Student Association what attracted him to trauma care, he replied, "the fun of working on the edge."

Asked what advice he had for students considering the field, he replied, "Do not do it unless the patient ALWAYS comes first."

McSwain has written dozens of textbooks, hundreds of medical journal articles and is considered one of the innovators of the EMS system and "prehospital" medical care.

"He is an icon. He is unbelievably dedicated," said one trauma care physician who trained with him, Dr. Preston "Chip" Rich of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

McSwain also is a character.

In an article a few years ago in a Tulane University magazine, McSwain displayed the salty tongue that accompanies his swagger, describing his affinity for what he called the three "S's" of doctors of his ilk - "surgery, sex and scotch" - not to mention snakeskin cowboy boots.

Now he hopes to cut a wide swath through the bureaucracy that got in the way of good care after the hurricane. He and Dr. Jeffrey Guy, a trauma and burn center surgeon from Vanderbilt University, are working on setting up care for Katrina evacuees in Nashville.

McSwain also contacted fellow members of the Halsted Society, an influential group of emergency medicine doctors at universities around the country, and arranged a special meeting in Cincinnati last week to press for changes in the system.

"My goal was to get out with the knowledge I have ... and get the word out on what was really going on, and try to prevent things like this in the future," McSwain said.

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