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Dr. Thomas Scalea reflects on 25 years as Shock Trauma's chief physician

Dr. Thomas Scalea Shock Trauma
Posted at 12:14 PM, Jan 04, 2022

BALTIMORE — January 4th is the anniversary of the arrival of one of the top doctors in Baltimore.

Dr. Thomas Scalea got to Shock Trauma as its new physician-in-chief on January 4th, 1997. In the past 25 years, he's cared for some of the sickest and most seriously wounded victims of crime, car crashes and Covid-19 - and he's not showing any signs of slowing down.

He told WMAR-2 News that Shock Trauma exists to give patients a second chance at life, and to help doctors, get better at providing them.

“There are not a lot of jobs where every year you're smarter than you were the year before,” Dr. Scalea said.

He says the improvements made to trauma care - have been the best part of the past 25 years.

“We order the way we do things differently than we used to,” Dr. Scalea said. “We give blood and plasma in a way very differently than the way that we used to. And we use much smaller techniques, minimally invasive techniques. If I can fix you with a stick in your groin instead of opening your abdomen from top to bottom, you get better quicker, you return to work or whatever it is you do quicker, it's better. And all of that has been part of the last 25 years.”

Shock Trauma is one of the busiest trauma centers in the world, and it’s getting busier. Since 1997 the facility has gone from treating about 5500 patients a year, to more than 7500.

The largest percentage of patients come from vehicle crashes and other accidents, all over the state.

“I always remind people it says "shock" on the front of the building before it says "trauma," and I just look at us as the sick people doctors - if you're sick and you are outstripping the resources where you are, we're the people who get called,” Dr. Scalea said.

But many patients are victims of crime, and many of those cases come with the toughest part of the job.

“It is an emotionally difficult thing to go tell some momma that her kid is not coming home,” Dr. Scalea said.

His position gives him a unique perspective on violence in Baltimore City, and he says he can pinpoint when it got much worse - April of 2015.

“This got acutely worse the day that Freddie Gray died. It (has gone up) and it's (gone down a bit) but it's never really come down,” Dr. Scalea said.

And for the past two years - the Covid-19 pandemic has been a major focus.

“Come make rounds with me. I'll show you what it looks like and I promise you, you don't want it,” Dr. Scalea said.

There's been major changes at the hospital, including the conversion of a large intensive care unit to a heart-lung bypass unit, which treats people with the worst cases of Covid pneumonia. It is now the largest facility of its kind in North America.

“I’m sorry that we had to do it but I'm very proud of all of my colleagues who just came to work and said let's go,” Dr. Scalea said.

Dr. Scalea is now 70 years old. He says he has no idea how much longer he'll be leading the team at Shock Trauma. But a retirement will not be happening until he has granted many more patients a second chance.

“I really love what I do, I think I'm still pretty good at it,” Dr. Scalea said. “I’m 70 years old, this can't go on forever but it's probably going to go on for another week or two, and I'll figure it out as I go.”