The Magazine sits down with the leader of the University’s new level I adult trauma center.
Selwyn O. Rogers Jr. is a habitual storyteller, and a strong one. We spoke in his University of Chicago Medicine office this February, shortly after he arrived to direct the level 1 adult trauma center that will open on campus next year—the only medical facility on Chicago’s South Side dedicated to treating life-threatening injuries from violence, car crashes, and other accidents.
“Tell me if I tell too many stories,” he said partway through our conversation. But Rogers’s tales are arresting, and every one of them illuminates why he’s right here, right now.
Like the story from when he was a junior faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. A man was brought in brain-dead from a gunshot wound to the head. With the patient’s mother and young daughter waiting outside the intensive care room, Rogers tried to quickly devise how he’d tell them there was nothing the doctors could do for the man.
As he began by asking what their faith was, the man’s mother “looked at me very resolved,” he remembers, and calmly said that she wanted the girl to see her father. A young dad himself, with his own kids in mind, Rogers suggested that might not be a good idea. But the mother was insistent; the patient had just gotten out of prison and hadn’t yet seen his daughter. “I think it’s important,” she told Rogers.
Rogers acceded, telling the little girl what to expect before bringing her into the room. There, in his re-creation of the scene, she “touches her dad’s hand, and the mother looks straight forward, keeps her hand on the girl’s shoulder, and there’s no crying, there’s no weeping, there’s just calm.” Afterward Rogers asked the mother, “What’s your source of strength?” She turned to him and said, “I had to bury my other son with a gunshot wound to the head two years ago.”
He leans forward to finish the story, voice lowered. “And I thought, no mother should have to go through that once. ... No mother should ever have to go through that twice.’”
It was early in his career, then, that Rogers started thinking hard about the social determinants of health—not only the violence that disproportionately affects some communities, but the disparities in income, education, and health care access that heighten the negative impact of diseases such as diabetes and asthma in those neighborhoods. He brings a holistic view of community health to his new job, and a determination to confront medical problems at their root.
The day we met was just 48 days—Rogers keeps a running count in his head—since his move from the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was vice president and chief medical officer, and a little more than a year before UChicago’s adult trauma center is slated to open next spring. He’d had to roll up his sleeves (and order cold-weather clothes and boots) as soon as he arrived. His office was understandably a work in progress, with a few items standing out: photos of his fiancée and three sons, who live in Galveston, Texas, and Atlanta, respectively, and a stack of copies of The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation (St. Martin’s, 2016). He’d been reading up on the neighborhood he’ll be serving, and giving the book to colleagues.
For Rogers, understanding the trauma center’s South Side setting is crucial. He believes he can’t succeed without the community’s help and trust. In addition to serving as the center’s founding director and as chief of the newly created Section for Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, he has a third appointment as executive vice president for community health engagement. In that capacity, he oversees UChicago Medicine’s Urban Health Initiative, which since 2006 has supported primary care clinics and education programs to improve the well-being of South Side neighborhoods. Linking that work with trauma care will distinguish this trauma center from most others.
Rogers’s focus on community health and its social determinants will build on long experience. While an associate professor of surgery at Harvard University, Rogers founded its thriving Center for Surgery and Public Health, which researches how surgery can be most effective and equitable across populations. During a year working as a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Meharry Medical College, he earned a master’s in public health at Vanderbilt. He has published frequently on health disparities and the impact of race and ethnicity on surgical outcomes.
Rogers grew up in the US Virgin Islands, in a poor family on St. Croix. He’s still grateful that an elementary school teacher noticed his academic talent instead of writing him off as simply bored. Skipping a grade and starting junior high school early motivated him to throw himself into his studies. “The things that I liked the most were biological sciences,” he says, and he thought of becoming a science teacher. “That was the first step.”
When it struck him that by being a doctor, he could both practice science and help people, Rogers pulled out a volume of his Encyclopaedia Britannica and looked up “medical school.” There were “only two medical schools listed, Harvard and Johns Hopkins. And that’s where I applied for college.” When his first year at Hopkins wasn’t the fit he was hoping for, he transferred to Harvard, where he finished college and medical school.
At the top of Rogers’s to-do list now is hiring the team of surgeons who will provide care at UChicago Medicine as it adds four trauma bays and expands by 188 inpatient beds to accommodate, among other patient groups, an expected 2,000 trauma patients in the first year of providing adult trauma care. He’s eager to form partnerships with other hospitals in the city, with residents of the South Side, and with colleagues across UChicago.
As much as he can weave a great story, Rogers prides himself on listening attentively and on being aware of what he doesn’t know. When we met, he had already kicked off his “active listening tour”—meeting and listening to stakeholders within the University and, “more fundamentally,” hearing from South Siders. “Without engagement of the communities,” he says, “we can build eight trauma centers, … and we will not have changed the core reasons for what we see every day.”
Both the present moment and the University, he believes, provide an uncommon opportunity to make those changes. One thing that drew him to UChicago was his strong impression that it’s “a university that welcomes big, bold ideas.” And in its breadth of intellectual expertise he hopes to find the needed ingredients for such breakthroughs. He foresees working with faculty in economics, social service administration, public policy, and the Urban Labs’ Crime Lab and Poverty Lab, to name a few. “I can’t think of a more compelling place or compelling set of circumstances for us to go for the big solution.”