The Zen of Trauma

Lynn Kemp in a meeting with the trauma team. Photo: Yiting Sun

Lynn Kemp in a meeting with the trauma team. Photo: Yiting Sun

A blizzard shut down much of New York City on a Sunday in January 2005. Lynn Kemp watched on TV that morning as a roaring blaze consumed a building on East 178th Street. Six firefighters were forced to jump off its 50-foot roof. Emergency Medical Services transported five of them to St. Barnabas Hospital, where Kemp worked as the trauma program manager.

The experienced trauma nurse mobilized into action, threw on her clothes and dug out her car buried beneath the snow. Twenty minutes later, she rushed into the trauma bay. There firefighters’ turnout coats, helmets and backpacks were scattered all over the floor.

Jeffrey Cool was among the most critical patients. Kemp and several surgical residents provided continual blood transfusions to keep him alive long enough for them to discover where the bleeding was coming from.

Kemp rolled Cool from the trauma bay to radiology screening room to the operation room and finally to the intensive care unit where he would remain for about a month. She whispered to him: “I’m here with you, just hang on.”

She knew it was the language of rescuers. Her 30-year professional career in trauma care also taught her that hearing was the last sense to go in critical patients, so she decided to give it a try.

Cool heard her and survived. But two other firefighters could not hold on. They were wheeled out on flag-covered stretchers down the corridors fully lined with uniformed firefighters, police officers and hospital employees. The entire building came to a standstill.

To this day, Kemp still reunites with the firefighters and their families, joined forever through the experience of fighting for life.

For Kemp, it was a day of triumph and tragedy that defines her career, and it motivates her to keep going.

Kemp has a rare blend of tenderness, emotional control and entrepreneurship, which has enabled her to center her entire career on trauma.

She started as a volunteer emergency medical technician, and then spent nine years in the air working as a flight nurse, transporting patients with life-threatening traumas to the Westchester Medical Center in a helicopter.

Ten years ago, she showed up in St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx to open a Level One trauma center in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city, where most trauma patients are young adults who have been shot or stabbed and are barely alive.

Her Zen-like spirit suppresses the ticking of impending death all around her. She has been able to achieve this balance since the age of 18.

“I love my career in trauma because I have an opportunity to truly make a difference between life and death, and help people at their most vulnerable times,” said Kemp, now 53. “I also enjoy the camaraderie between multiple health care professionals, something similar to combat camaraderie.”

Before she opened the trauma center at St. Barnabas Hospital, the hospital had an emergency room in which patients with minor injuries could be treated, but those who suffered from life-threatening traumas had to travel several miles to another trauma center. By the time the patients arrived there, their chances of survival were grim. In the year 2000, the administrators of the hospital were planning on establishing a regional level one trauma center.

“We petitioned the state, and gave them information that would help justify our designation here,” said Patricia Belair, the senior vice president of St. Barnabas Hospital, who has worked here for 13 years.  “Lynn really was the guiding star for this program.”

Kemp initiated almost every conceivable aspect of development for the trauma center, including the business plan, the equipment, the protocol, and the training.

The center began as a cubicle inside the emergency room. “They gave us a little curtain, and a little area,” said Kemp. “That was it! That was it! That was the trauma bay!”

Today it is a big open space with tall, pink curtains that could accommodate two trauma cases at the same time. But physical location was never the most prominent obstacle.

“The big thing to accomplish was commitment and organizational transition,” said Kemp. The concept was that the trauma center would be integrated with the hospital, coordinating with every department.

“We have to get along with everybody,” Kemp laughed from her sun-lit office, resting her elbows on her desk that is cluttered by printed-out emails and schedules.  Whenever a trauma patient arrives, he or she should be the first to have access to all kinds of equipment, which often disrupts other departments’ routines.

A trauma center provides a higher level of medical service than an emergency room. It ensures definitive surgical care for the most complex, life-threatening blunt force and penetrating injuries, and dedicates a full range of surgical specialists trained in trauma, neurosurgery, orthopedics, plastic and oral surgery, all available 24 hours a day.

Trauma centers also engage in research and education, providing leadership in trauma system development.

Emergency rooms treat and release non-life threatening conditions such as minor bone fractures or flu infections. In severe trauma cases, patients are stabilized for transfer to a higher-level trauma center.

Since the trauma center works closely with all kinds of departments, it urges the entire hospital to rise to the level of trauma care, and the problems of human resources loom large.

As the initial trauma center coordinator, Kemp needed to recruit doctors who would be willing to stay at least eight nights a month in the hospital overnight in order to provide in-house, on-call coverage seven days a week. “Our trauma surgeons and specialists are very dedicated and sacrifice so much of themselves for their patients,” said Kemp.

Kemp has worked hard to achieve a cohesive camaraderie in her trauma team. She listens to people, even if it’s to hear about a colleague’s recent plumbing problem that kept him up all night. “Yes, I know. I feel your pain. Whenever you feel bad, I’ll send you a picture of my kitchen!” Kemp said to her colleague who just called her for stress relief. “Anytime. That’s what I’m here for.” Then she hung up the phone with a big smile on her face.

“You can’t live without plumbing.” said Kemp, whose father is a plumber. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, an engineer who makes hip and knee implants. “Funny,” she said. “He makes the parts, and I am involved in having them installed.” Her daughter is a nurse, and her son is studying nursing in college. Her whole family revolves around health care.

Kemp studied nursing at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City when she was 19. In 2008, she earned her master’s degree in the nurse executive program from Columbia University Teacher’s College.

On the windowsill of her office, there are two photos of Kemp dressed in red flight nurse’s uniform standing in front of a helicopter with her colleagues.

She worked as a senior flight nurse at Westchester Medical Center’s STAT (Stabilization, Treatment and Transport) Flight at that time. During her nine-year career there, she has transferred premature infants in incubators, and flown to Florida to transport intensive care patients, monitoring their heart rates during the flight.

The nine years of experience saving lives all across America was unforgettable. “I still to this day have many friends,” said Kemp, turning away to look at the picture on her windowsill. “A few friends died in this picture. Sometimes helicopters crash, and everybody gets killed. And you get very attached to these people.”

It was a both physically and emotionally demanding job. Kemp often needed to take care of the severely injured patients at night in a cold helicopter cabin. A single mistake could determine their fate.

As a flight nurse, Kemp worked three days a week. Even though she had more time with her children than most working mothers, the possibility of crashing and leaving her children behind was always in the back of her mind.

Kemp finally came back to work on land in 2000, to work mostly with the victims of youth violence in the Bronx, where the injuries are more from knife and gun wounds than from motorcycle accidents.

On Sep. 8, two trauma patients arrived in a single night. One young man in his 20s had a bullet pierce his eye, just millimeters away from his brain. The next afternoon, the young man had to have his eye removed. Another young man was wheeled in with a bullet in his spine, and he would never walk again.

Young people’s reckless attitude toward life and death exasperates her. “Sometimes kids come in dead, and we have to tell their parents; it’s sad, so sad,” said Kemp. “They don’t understand that you may die, or be paralyzed for the rest of your life because of the things you get involved in.”

Kemp said her career in trauma has taught her that life changes in a minute. “One minute you are here, the next you are gone,” said Kemp. “In trauma, you see this everyday.”

According to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, traumatic injury accounts for about 14,000 deaths per year and is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for children and adults up to age 34. Since those who die of injury are mostly young, trauma accounts for more years of lost productivity than heart disease, cancer and stroke combined.

“In the environment of the Bronx, there are a lot of 14, 15, 16-year-old deaths, senseless death, guns, gangs, no value of life,” said AnnMarie McDonald, the trauma program coordinator of St. Barnabas Hospital. “It’s really a huge issue.”

That is why a trauma center is so important for the Bronx in particular. “Because if some of these children, adolescents, some of these gun-injured patients weren’t taken to a trauma center, the chances of them surviving would greatly reduce,” said McDonald.

McDonald was Kemp’s classmate at Columbia University from 2006 to 2008, and is one of her closest colleagues. “She’s an inspiration,” McDonald said about her experience working with Kemp. “We think about things, we brainstorm. She’s really quite an incredible woman.”

Kemp is truly a child of the 60s, very patriotic and very family-oriented. She does not want to be rich, just want to be happy. “I just want to do good things,” she said.  “You know, you feel good when you go home, that’s all.”

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