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March 2, 2013

Surgeon brings lofty goals

JOHNSTOWN — Twelve-hour shifts and the stress of life-and-death decisions in a world-class Level 1 trauma center may not be the average 69-year-old’s idea of a nice change of pace.

But Dr. Aurelio Rodriguez is finding his new job on Memorial Medical Center’s trauma team to be a rewarding opportunity to continue his distinguished career.

The change comes after more than four decades at some of the top trauma centers in the world, including 20 years at the nation’s first: The University of Maryland R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Rodriguez began his trauma career there in 1976.

He trained with Dr. R. Adams Cowley, who coined the concept of the “Golden Hour” and is considered the father of modern trauma medicine.

Rodriguez became associate director of the Shock Trauma Center that bears his mentor’s name and rose to full professor of surgery at University of Maryland.

From 2000 through 2010, he was director of the trauma program at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he served as professor of surgery for Drexel University College of Medicine’s program in Pittsburgh.

He then returned to Baltimore as associate director of Sinai Hospital’s trauma program.

Two other Memorial trauma surgeons, Dr. S. Lee Miller and Dr. Russell Dumire, received training under Rodriguez when he was at the University of Baltimore. Miller is Memorial’s medical director of trauma surgery, and Rodriguez’s supervisor.

It is not surprising, Rodriguez said, the Baltimore center is one of the top training programs in the nation for trauma surgeons. Sinai’s and Allegheny General’s staffs included former students.

“Everywhere I go, somebody there was my fellow,” he said. “Twenty percent of the people running trauma trained under us.”

Rodriguez says he left the Cowley center because he wanted to work in the “real world.” The Baltimore program founded by Cowley in 1958 led the nation, putting its leaders in the spotlight

“That was my Fantasy Island,” he said, the accent from his native Peru reminiscent of Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban from the 1970s “Fantasy Island” television show.

Rodriguez moved back to Baltimore and took the Sinai job to be close to his eight children, who now range from college age to 47. But he maintained his home in Pittsburgh and was thinking about retiring.

“Then I decided: I want to continue working,” he said. “I think I can do a lot more.”

As author of six books and more than 200 published articles, he hopes to expand on his work in two areas: Geriatric trauma care and therapeutic hypothermia in trauma. He is a founder and was the first president of the Panamerican Trauma Society, which has grown to become the world’s largest in the field.

Rodriguez was featured on three episodes of The Learning Channel’s “Trauma: Life in the E.R.,” in which film crews followed him for three days for an episode.

In Pittsburgh, he founded the nation’s first geriatric trauma institute to begin defining trauma care and trauma prevention unique in patients age 65 and older. He plans to launch the Central Pennsylvania Geriatric Trauma Institute in a few months.

“Maybe it is because I am old; I don’t know,” Rodriguez said.

This region’s large population of senior citizens makes it ideal for developing best practices in geriatric care, he noted.

“What this institute is going to do is create guidelines and pathways of the best way to treat geriatric people,” Rodriguez said. “We can expand care and reduce costs so patients can go home earlier.”

In trauma prevention, the institute’s team will work with nursing homes and care providers to help prevent falls and identify patients at risk for falls.

“We have a very comprehensive multidisciplinary team,” Rodriguez said. “Our hope is that it will be the crown jewel of Pennsylvania. We are making history. That is my goal.”

Rodriguez says he is in the right place to make history. After a career in big-city trauma centers, Conemaugh’s Level 1 center came as a pleasant surprise.

“I am very impressed with what I found here,” Rodriguez said. “The physical plant of this hospital is better than most of the hospitals I have been in before. I am very pleased with the place.”

The professional staff, including doctors and nurses, are top rate, he said, adding that the prehospital network of ambulance and paramedic services is outstanding.

Miller said he is happy to be working with his former instructor.

“I was one of Dr. Rodriguez’s fellows 22 years ago at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma in Baltimore,” Miller said. “I’m delighted to have someone with his expertise working with us at Conemaugh Memorial. Dr. Rodriguez can really provide a historic viewpoint of trauma care.

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