Dr. John Ma

Chair of Emergency Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University

Image: Daniel Root

The number one thing that interests me about emergency medicine is that you get to be a detective. Someone walks off the street and says, “Hey, I feel weak and dizzy.” And you start from square one and do the whole history—the physical, the tests—and try to make that diagnosis. To me, finding the reason for what’s going on is the interesting part. Sometimes, though, it’s obvious. We are one of the two Level 1 trauma centers in the area—that’s the top level, where all the really bad trauma [cases], like gunshot wounds, go—so trauma is certainly the major part of what we see here in Portland. I’ve been practicing emergency medicine for nearly 20 years now, so I’ve seen a lot of senseless shootings, enough to feel almost jaded. There are very few cases in my career where I actually cry during my shift. But there was one: a 16-year-old who was a drive-by shooting victim. He was shot in the head. He came in and we quickly tried to resuscitate him and took him off to the operating room. The mother came in later on, and I met her in the family room and explained what had happened. She pulled a piece of paper out of her coat pocket and handed it to me and said, “I hope this will help you take care of my son.” I opened it, and it was his immunization record. That’s why I sort of lost it. Because I knew the grave condition of her son, that most likely he wouldn’t make it—and in fact, he did die—and I had just finished explaining that to her. But she wanted to give me and the neurosurgeons every opportunity to enhance the care of her son and thought maybe the immunization record would help. It’s one of those situations where you realize that there isn’t a cure for every ill in medicine. As advanced as we think we are, there are just situations—a bullet going through a brain, for example—where medical science doesn’t have a cure. That’s a hard thing. —As told to Kasey Cordell