Denver Health honors surgeon with 40-year career

‘He can out-operate me any day of the week’

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To K. Barry Platnick, trauma medical director at Denver Health, trauma surgeon Ernest “Gene” Moore “is arguably the greatest trauma surgeon working today.”

“He can run, jump, scream, roll in the mud and out-operate me on any day of the week,” Platnick said. “I wanted to be a trauma surgeon from the beginning, and 30 years ago there were just a few big names in trauma and Dr. Moore was already one of the biggest.”

Last month, Denver Health recognized Moore’s excellence and contributions by renaming its trauma center as the Ernest E. Moore Shock and Trauma Center.

Moore started working at Denver Health in 1976 when trauma surgery was still in its infancy as a field. Years later, Denver Health built one of the first academic level one trauma centers in the country with Moore as its pioneer. The hospital at that time was called Denver General Hospital.

Today, the trauma center treats more than 2,700 patients each year and has a 98 percent trauma survival rate. Moore is co-editor of “Trauma,” a textbook for surgeons now in its eighth edition, as well as a professor of surgery at the University of Colorado in Denver.

Of Moore’s more than 40 years at Denver Health, 36 have been as chief of trauma.

Life on Capitol Hill editor Kailyn Lamb caught up with Moore, who has no plans to retire, after the July 10 event at Denver Health for an interview that looked at how he got started, the importance of the team and how to stave off burnout.

When you first started at Denver General, trauma was in its early stages as a specialty. What motivated you to make trauma your career?

I was going to be a cardiac surgeon. I trained at the University of Vermont with a surgeon named Dr. John Davis, who I’m sure you don’t recognize, but every trauma surgeon in the world does. He was the prototype for “M*A*S*H,” and you can imagine what a character he was.

Many of us who work in our field see an individual and they change course and they follow what they’ve done. I give Dr. Davis credit for changing my life’s aspirations.

Your career has spanned decades, and you have a long list of accolades to accompany it. What would you say is your greatest achievement?

Watching us develop a model academic trauma center. We invest in research so we can continue to search for better ways to treat patients, and community education — because we really do have the obligation to train trauma leaders around the country, as well as the state. That’s not limited to surgeons. It’s all the disciplines.

Trauma patients face an incredibly difficult time. How do you keep a calm presence when you go into a surgery room to help ease that patient’s mind?

The essential element of a trauma surgeon, or really anyone who works in trauma, is to be able to maintain composure. When things are not going the way you expect it’s the time to sit back, take a breath, recalculate and move on and slow your procedures and your approach. That’s what makes all of us special in trauma.

The unique thing about trauma is we’re called in at 3 o’clock in the morning in the emergency department and we have no idea what we’re dealing with . . . Yet we have a team around us that we’ve got to try to direct and go through things systematically so we do the right things in the right order.

You keep emphasizing how important the team is. What does it mean to have a strong team around you when you’re in surgery?

The team concept is important everywhere. When the paramedics roll into the emergency department they are giving reports. A lot of what we do in the first five minutes is based on what they saw and what they tell us.

In the operating room when things are not going well, you need operating room nurses who can go get your equipment for you, quiet things down and make it a quiet environment where you can proceed ahead. Those things are incredibly important to keep in mind when you’re managing trauma.

What do you do to relax?

My wife’s an internist, my youngest son’s an internist and my oldest son is a surgeon. So the conversation around the table I wouldn’t call relaxing.

We’re lucky we have a cabin in Steamboat Springs. We all are avid skiers, climbers. My sons and I have done extreme sports like Iron Man. It keeps us out of trouble.

I believe you can’t work hard without playing hard, and you gotta unwind from a place like this. You can’t take this baggage home every night with you, time after time after time, and that’s why we treasure our cabin in Steamboat Springs. When you go out of the city and into the mountains, three days is like taking a two-week vacation. You just feel your blood pressure drop as you drive up to the cabin.

It’s been really important for all of us in the medical field to take that time off, otherwise we face this epidemic of burnout. Burnout, to me, is simply the inability to recognize your priorities. Your priorities have to change during your life. I am delighted that my wife emphasized to me during my early career that I had to make the commitment to the boys as well. The fact that they’ve gone into academic medicine to me is gratifying.

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