When the unexpected happens
Trauma experts provide lifesaving care and improve outcomes for patients
Much of life can be scheduled: Annual doctor and dental checkups, dinner with friends or family, work meetings. But trauma—a leading cause of death and disability—comes without warning. While it happens at every age, it’s the number one cause of death between the ages of one and 45, marking it as a disease of the young and a major health burden.
For avid cyclist John Mafrige, his introduction to trauma happened in March 2014. John was on his way to meet some friends in downtown Houston—only a few miles from his house—to ride in the Tour de Houston. Riding down a familiar section of the road that crosses paths with the MetroRail, his front tire became wedged into the track, sending him careening over the front of his bicycle and shattering his femur when he landed.
When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics told him that he needed to go to the Red Duke Trauma Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center instead of any other hospital.
“I asked why and they said, ‘This is bad. You need to go there. Just trust us,’” John remembers.
As John sat in the waiting room with his wife, Carol, staff encouraged them to wait for orthopedic trauma surgeon John Munz, MD. “Their exact words were, ‘Dr. John Munz needs to do this. It’s going to be worth the wait,’” he says.
Munz and other world-renowned orthopedic surgery and trauma faculty at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston serve the Greater Houston area around the clock. Together with the trainees that follow in their footsteps, they staff clinics across the city and the Red Duke Trauma Institute, one of the nation’s busiest Level 1 trauma centers.
“Trauma is an equal-opportunity event, and you don’t plan for it,” says Munz. “The opportunity to get patients back to their prior level of comfort, back to their families, hobbies, and employment, is truly amazing.”
After hours of surgery, Munz placed a rod, secured by screws, through John’s femur.
“The big key is his expertise in being able to take chips of bones and put them back together again. I’m a living testament to that,” he says. “He made sure that I was fully healed, and I’m very grateful.”
After months of follow-up appointments and physical therapy, John returned to riding his bicycle, going many years without incident. It was March 2021 when trauma struck again.
“I was riding with a few friends, and the last thing I remember is coming around the corner of Hermann Park by the golf course,” he says.
John awoke to his wife snapping a photo of him lying in the hospital with no memory of what happened. The accident left him with a severe concussion, broken hand and collarbone, and shattered elbow. Experts believed that he hit a rough patch on the ground before flying off of his bicycle, which caused complex injuries that could have required multiple surgeries.
“My wife was there with me in the hospital, and the first thing we asked was, ‘Where is Dr. Munz?’” says John.
Munz was able to fix everything during one surgery, helping John on the road to recovery sooner. Munz also connected John to Summer Ott, PsyD, for further evaluation of his concussion.
“I was in the care of someone who wasn’t just interested in getting me past an emergency spot and out of danger. He wanted to get me back to where I was. That is such a huge thing that I can’t even begin to explain,” says John. “Whether it was the femur or the elbow and collarbone, the concussion—I always had such a sense of comfort knowing that Dr. Munz was there, and that comfort helps you heal.”
IMPROVING OUTCOMES FOR ALL
Trauma, considered a team sport because of the multiple specialties involved, including neurosurgery, orthopedics, pediatrics, and geriatrics, covers the full continuum of care from acute injury, to surgery, to rehabilitation. The volume of patients at the Red Duke Trauma Center has allowed UTHealth Houston researchers to examine patient outcomes and create best practices for care.
“It’s important to identify the problem first, so we spend a lot of time conducting epidemiology studies around patient outcomes,” says Charles E. Wade, PhD, who works alongside clinicians like Munz as the Director of the Center for Translational Injury Research at McGovern Medical School. “Since I’ve been here, our mortality rate dropped from 7% to 4%, and patients get out of the ICU sooner. These are some of the metrics we look at.”
Support to the Many Faces. One Mission. campaign from the Howell Family Fund, Clare Glassell, and community donors helps the team conduct research, such as using stem cells to heal traumatic brain injuries, treating and preventing blood clots postoperatively, and collaborating with Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston to investigate the epidemiology of trauma deaths in Harris County.
Munz—who holds the Rochelle and Max Levit Chair in Orthopedic Surgery and the Walter R. Lowe, MD, Professorship—and Wade—who holds the James H. Red Duke, Jr., MD, Distinguished Professorship in Surgery—are able to direct funds from these faculty endowments to support junior faculty development and research, as well as to enhance educational opportunities for students and trainees.
Unlike McGovern Medical School, many medical students across the nation don’t have exposure to the volume of trauma patients or the facilities or specialists to treat them.
“We do a lot of education with medical students, residents, fellows, visiting students, and international surgeons. We are a very big teaching center, as big as they come,” explains Munz. “And our trauma fellowship is the most competitive fellowship out there.”
“Philanthropic support helped fund a new fellowship in burns, and last year, we put together a scholarly emphasis in trauma,” adds Wade. “The idea is to help students who are interested in the field find a specialty that interests them but focuses on trauma. Philanthropy also allows us to support student participation in national meetings to share their work with the goal of building the next generation of trauma experts.”