MONTGOMERY — The dictionary defines medical trauma as an injury to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent. However, Montgomery trauma specialist John Mark Vermillion, M.D., has his own personal definition. He’s worked since 2005 to build the River Region’s premiere trauma center, which is located at Baptist Medical Center South. This is Alabama’s fourth largest trauma center.
“So here’s the definition of trauma I made up, and it’s kind of quirky, but it’s one of my life quotes: The unintended consequences of actions performed that supersede one’s skill level or common sense. That’s based on my own experience of taking care of a lot of traumas,” Dr. Vermillion smiled. “I have a lot of life quotes I pass along to my kids, and this is one of them.”
When he first arrived in Montgomery, even he was taken back by the fact the region did not have a trauma center. At the time, Montgomery’s hospitals rotated ERs of the day. It was an incredible strain on the professionals taking care of critical patients brought to the emergency room. It wasn’t enough.
“Our area is equivalent to downtown Baltimore, Chicago, and other high-profile metro areas in the percentage of trauma cases. Their numbers are larger, and their populations are proportionately larger to ours, but that’s still a sad statistic,” Dr. Vermillion said. “Trauma in our world is defined mainly as high-speed car wrecks and penetrating wounds such as gunshots or stabbings. Trauma in Alabama is mostly associated with gunshot wounds. Birmingham and Montgomery have the same basic population base and the same type of trauma as the larger cities in the nation that get a lot of press from it because they have such high numbers since their populations are so high. But, our percentages are right on par with Baltimore and Chicago.”
It’s easy to imagine how fast-paced it can be once a trauma rolls into the emergency room. But, that’s when this Texas native is at his best. What may look like chaos to some is fuel for Dr. Vermillion, and it pumps through his veins like quicksilver. This is what he thrives on. This is what he grew up on. This is in his DNA.
Two of Dr. Vermillion’s uncles, his father and grandfather are all physicians as well, and they all trained at the same hospital in Texas, but he said he’s a bit of the black sheep in the family.
“They all tried to dissuade me from going into medicine as a profession. They really didn’t want me to do it,” he laughed. “I’m the only one of the grandkids who became a doctor. There’re two lawyers, a rocket scientist – a legit rocket scientist – a social worker, teacher, so I’m the black sheep of the family since I’m the only doctor.”
It didn’t work, and he has his grandfather to thank for that. His grandfather was a physician in a small town and would often take him to the hospital at night so he could act as his first assistant during surgeries. At the young age of 14, the surgical procedures, blood…nothing bothered the young boy. It infatuated him.
“Oh man, I was hooked!” Dr. Vermillion said. “I definitely got the medical bug early. My grandfather also hired me one summer when I was in junior high school to put all his records on a spreadsheet. Here I was thinking there was no way I could finish that summer, but his entire records were on 5×7 cards with the patient’s name, a date stamp, vitals, diagnosis and prescription. That was his medical record for all his patients. His electronic medical record was me putting it on a spreadsheet. It took less than a month.”
Now fully entrenched, he had his mind set on a career in medicine. He planned to go to medical school, do a family practice residency, then a year of surgical training, and finally go into practice in a small town like his grandfather. But, that all changed in medical school.
“I liked the surgical procedural side of things a lot better than I liked the primary care medicine. It fit my personality a lot better. It’s high-rush, high-stakes, high-adrenaline style medicine. When I was 14 and went into that first surgery with my grandfather I thought it was awesome. Nothing about it bothered me. It was a great exposure for me at an early age,” Dr. Vermillion explained.
And the stakes are very high. Since 2005 when Dr. Vermillion and Baptist South began building the trauma center, it has grown to include a full medical team with students. The hours can be long and arduous, and the team can easily treat more than 2,000 trauma patients in a year. Dr. Vermillion has a very good memory for his patients and remembers almost every one of them, but the ones who affect him the most are children.
“Children are very hard for me. Kids get to me,” he said, patting his chest.
With a wife and children of his own at home, it’s easy to see why treating a child with a trauma could be the one thing to stop Dr. Vermillion in his tracks even for a moment. It’s also why he treasures every moment he can away from the hospital. The Vermillions have nine children, two of which are foster children.
Dr. Vermillion isn’t one to stand still very long, though. He’s part of a medical mission team through the Chikondi Health Foundation that regularly travels to Malawi where the foundation supports a hospital. While there, the team takes care of basic medical needs, but can also perform minor surgical procedures that can be life-changing for the patients. When he goes, he tries to take one of his children with him, trying to do for his children what his grandfather did for him. He’s not sure if it’s working, though. His daughter lasted only a few minutes during a procedure before going back to the orphanage.
“It’s truly a different world there,” Dr. Vermillion said. “It’s a 12-day trip, and it’s a very satisfying experience. The families and patients are so grateful. I can see the same gratefulness in these people that my grandfather did when he was treating people in the town where he lived.”
*Photos compliments of Baptist South and Dr. John Mark Vermillion.