The Bigger Picture

Trauma surgeon Eddie Cornwell, made famous by `Hopkins 24/7,' wants to do more than patch up victims of violence. He's working to stop the shooting before it starts.

September 09, 2000|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

The TV cameramen followed him so closely for months that Eddie Cornwell nicknamed them Sting. "Every step you take, every move you make ... I'll be watching you," he sang as they chased him down six flights of stairs to the operating room where he would sew up gunshot victims.

The 43-year-old chief of adult trauma surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital has become a celebrity in the 10 days since ABC aired the first of its real-life medical drama, "Hopkins 24/7."

Few could steal the limelight from the already famous Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon also featured on the broadcast who afterward was besieged by parents of desperately ill children. But the unknown Cornwell, playing himself, won the humanitarian award and in short order is becoming a national celebrity.

Diane Sawyer of "Good Morning, America" caught up with him after a 36-hour shift last week. Yesterday People magazine listened to him teach medical students. Friends have offered to serve as his agent, and old mentors have popped up on ABC chat rooms: "Your dad always knew you had the right stuff," wrote one surgeon.

One of six attending surgeons at Hopkins who operate on victims of violence and accidents, Edward E. Cornwell says he is uncomfortable "with the hero stuff." That he survived the editing of 600 hours of film is nine parts good fortune and one part how he approaches his work, he says.

"The best part of all this hype, which is driving me crazy, is that it gives me a chance to develop a network and to discuss a more complicated and, if you will, boring, issue - violence prevention," Cornwell says.

It came as no surprise to him that the cameras went for the blood and gore and drama in what is predominately a research hospital.

He allowed cameras into his life with the condition that he would not change his schedule. The surprise birthday party staged by Cornwell's wife and 3-year-old son at their Ellicott City home wasn't the only unexpected moment in the trauma surgeon's busy life. The camera also caught Cornwell introducing a group of young black boys in the Police Athletic League to one of his patients, a recovering but permanently mangled gunshot victim. At bedside, Cornwell's commentary on the choices kids can make was accompanied by a full viewing of guts and blood and missing body parts that can result from such choices.

The scene of a doctor trying to prevent the kind of violence that sends patients to him connected with viewers.

"Thank you for giving back to the community," wrote one.

Cornwell is a "true angel among humanity," said another. "If only more of us could be like him."

No time to be bored

A tall, wiry man whom "24/7" producer Phyllis McGrady says is as good looking as George Clooney, Cornwell is exhausted only by boredom. He's as likely to be found on a treadmill at 3:57 a.m. as on the Hopkins basketball court at shift's end. He will talk long into the night when the subject is medicine, violence prevention, his family, the Redskins - or any sport.

Sports allows him to "get enraged about something that doesn't mean anything," he says. His wife, Maggie Covington, a doctor on the faculty of the University of Maryland Medical School, compares him and his friends talking sports on the phone to "a bunch of old ladies."

He's been a Redskins season ticket holder for 35 years, ever since at age 7 he tagged along to games with his father.

At 17, he followed his father, a Washington surgeon and clinical instructor at Howard University, on rounds. But it wasn't until a cornea transplant in his right eye a year later that Cornwell realized first-hand what doctors could do and chose a medical career. He earned his undergraduate degree from Brown University and received his medical degree from Howard University in 1982. He trained in trauma surgery at the University of Maryland. Two and a half years ago, he was recruited by Hopkins from the trauma center at the University of Southern California Los Angeles County Medical Center where he had treated patients for five years.

In California, he wrote papers that defined how gunshot wounds should be treated and led a team that investigated why patients transported to a trauma center by ambulance died more often than those taken to the hospital by fellow gang members or family.

Last month, after a third study on pre-hospital care for violence victims was sent to a medical journal for publication, he told state emergency medical workers his findings: Only two of thousands of gunshot victims brought to Maryland hospitals in the past three years needed to be stabilized on a board, a procedure that takes precious time. For gunshot victims, he says, the best response may be to "scoop and run."

This kind of research is expected of a Hopkins faculty member, but what the cameras also picked up is his interest in something normally outside a surgeon's realm - stopping the violence. It's not necessarily the kind of involvement that advances a surgeon's career. But to Cornwell, there's no alternative.

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