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Take a look inside Harborview's level one trauma center

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Harborview Medical Center is the region's only level one trauma center. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE-- It's one of the busiest places in Seattle: Harborview Medical Center's emergency department. And it's particularly hectic now, because as the weather warms up, people are more likely to get out and get hurt. "We classically call it trauma season," said ED Registered Nurse Gwendolyn Angel. "It's gorgeous, but I work a lot harder."

Angel is based in the noisy side of a trauma center. The ED is the place the gunshot wounds, the stabbings, the worst of the accident victims come.

"We're fairly comfortable with getting a lot of patients and the noise level rising and us just being focused on who's sick, who's not sick and how to best get their care and how quickly they need care," Angel said.

When someone suffers a serious trauma, medics on the scene alert Harborview's Emergency Department by phone. They explain injuries and how they're treating the patient in the field to a doctor who can sign off on the care or make suggestions. That doctor then mobilizes his team, letting them know how soon the patient will arrive and what they're facing.


The only level one trauma center in our region, Harborview has every expert - all the specialties - available 24/7. And that extends well beyond the controlled chaos of the emergency department.

You'll find the quieter side of the trauma center on the ninth floor at Harborview. This is the Trauma Intensive Care Unit, where the most critically injured patients come to heal.

"The data would suggest if you're cared for in trauma centers that are used to taking care of those types of injuries, you're going to do better," said Harborview's Chief of Trauma, Dr. Eileen Bulger. "I think part of that is that we're constantly looking for ways to improve our care."

That includes investing in new technology, like a machine that acts as a patient's lungs. We saw it running, taking blood from a critically ill man's body, adding oxygen and pumping it back in.

So far Harborview has used it to treat a dozen patients.

"My honest feeling is none of them would have survived without the machine," Bulger said.

Nine-year-old Clint Eckmann was in and out of the trauma ICU after suffering second- and third-degree burns over 13 percent of his body.

Clint's mother Naomi tearfully described finding her son on fire, after he tried lighting a candle.

"He was on fire from his waist up and the flames were above his head," she said. Emergency teams in North Pole, Alaska, stabilized him, then flew him to Harborview for treatment. More than six weeks and three surgeries later, Clint is finally going home.

"They've really been phenomenal ever since," Eckmann said. "I'm really grateful for this place."


The trauma center extends outside the hospital walls, too.

Airlift Northwest brings 1,400 patients to Harborview every year.

Each flight has two nurses - one specially trained in pediatrics and the other, adult medicine.

"We're capable of being ready for anything. Any age patient, any time," said flight nurse Barbara Dempsey.

It's not just a way to get to the hospital. Airlift is a flying ICU

"It's kind of a sacred time that we're flying these people, and they're very memorable," Dempsey said.

So much so, people aren't dropped off and forgotten. Because Airlift Northwest and Harborview are both under the UW Medicine umbrella, the nurses can follow up on their patients' care, and they do.

"It closes the loop," explained flight nurse Traci Pearl. "Helps me learn what Harborview did after I was done, because it helps me approach the patient differently next time, to see if I could do something better or different."

Doing better is personal. The toughest days in a trauma center aren't necessarily the busiest.


"Many of our patients don't make it for one reason or another," Pearl said. "And that's sad, and then we work with that."

"We see a lot of things that I think, it's difficult for most people to process," said ED RN Angel. "We see the full spectrum of health care, from children walking out the door to not."

Trauma can happen to anyone, anytime.

And while we don't plan for it, the trauma center does, so it can bring people back from their worst moments.

"Having a good group of strong co-workers and very caring people is what keeps us together here," Angel said.

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