Golden hour clouded by governor's budget

Shock Trauma: Recession turns a life-saving service and other programs into rainy day funds.

February 03, 2002

JOHN FLEUTSCH swung a slender leg over the black saddle of his Suzuki Intruder 800, a turquoise and chrome beauty, sleek and stable, a baby Harley.

He turned the bike out of his driveway onto Bay Ridge Drive south of Annapolis, heading for a Saturday shift at Circuit City in Beltsville.

Leaning forward a bit for leverage, he took the handlebar gearshift through a rhythmic series of twists, excited again by the throaty cry of the engine.

When he tried to remember what happened next, a single image, two words, was all he could recover.

Red truck.

The vehicle had rolled into the street in front of him from a driveway bordered by dense shrubbery. His helmeted head hammered into the steel truck bed at the bike's decelerating speed, 30 ... 25 ... 20 miles an hour.

John Fleutsch was unlucky and lucky all at the same time. A medical safety net -- Maryland's acclaimed Shock Trauma team -- was waiting for him, or someone like him. In a sense, Mr. Fleutsch was every Marylander. He was every one of us who ever engaged in a risky adventure or lived with others whose bad luck or risk-taking -- or criminal misbehavior -- threatened our lives or wellbeing.

Mr. Fleutsch was swooped up by the Shock Trauma helicopter, whisked to its emergency facilities on the city's southwest side and "saved" by the hospital's top-notch doctors and equipment.

He had a broken arm and neck and a gashed right leg. He spent considerable time immobilized and even more rehabbing with a wheelchair and a metal "halo" around his head. But today he's back at work and back to the life that almost slipped away from him on that road near his house.

When he got home, he went to find Dr. Paul Goszkowski, a chiropractor who lived next to the accident scene. He had rushed out to help, and convinced others to leave the helmet on as a splint.

"Go out and buy a lottery ticket," Dr. Goszkowski said, "and use the date of your accident as your number. It was really good for you."

You'd think the state would be swooning over Shock Trauma and the formidable service it provides for this state's citizens.

But despite its reputation and political support, Shock Trauma has had to fight for every penny it spends on helicopters, skilled nursing, surgeons and CT scanners.

And again this year, with his budget in need of cash, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has swiped a $5 million "surplus" from Shock Trauma funds.

Program managers dispute the "surplus" characterization, saying they will be unable to buy critically important new equipment if the money is denied.

They find the governor's decision troubling -- as do some members of the General Assembly, because a $11 per year vehicle registration surcharge was designed to insulate Shock Trauma from times like these. Now that $5 million will be gone unless the assembly and the governor find another way to meet their budgeting goals. A variety of forces are likely to apply pressure for restoring the cut.

Various other programs -- including the effort to make Baltimore properties lead-safe -- have been somewhat unceremoniously cut this year. So has the state program for insuring high risk drivers.

As with Shock Trauma, the budget process could undo years of debate and discussion in Annapolis. Legislators, interest groups and professional experts have shaped and reshaped programs to solve problems in the community. The governor's budgeting task was a difficult one, but raids on important programs aren't the way to achieve balance.

Shock Trauma could be the poster program for the recalculations that will be going on in Annapolis for the next several months. It surely represents one of the most recognizable strands in a safety net that protects citizens of every income and rank in every part of Maryland.

If you doubt that, just ask John Fleutsch. Shock Trauma saved his life.

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