In memoriam: Donald D. Trunkey, M.D. (1937-2019)

Former surgery chair and trauma care advocate leaves behind a legacy

The OHSU School of Medicine and Department of Surgery announce with great sadness that Donald D. Trunkey, M.D. R ’64, professor emeritus of surgery and former Mackenzie Chair, passed away May 1. He was 81.

Dr. Trunkey led an extraordinary life and leaves behind a legacy. His impact at OHSU is only surpassed by the magnitude of his influence on 20th century American surgery.

Dr. Trunkey, in glasses, during a procedure with other medical staff, circa the 1980s (courtesy OHSU Historical Collections and Archives)

Up until just a couple years ago, members of the Department of Surgery could find Dr. Trunkey rummaging around his Mackenzie Hall office; he was affectionately known as the pack rat of the department. His quarters were overwhelmed by stacks of journals and texts, various knickknacks and gifts from surgical societies, and filing cabinets full of his life’s work. His bursting-at-the-seams office offered a poignant visual of what 60 years in the field of medicine, surgery and research could amount to.

Dr. Trunkey led and advanced the Department of Surgery as Mackenzie Professor and chair from 1986 to 2001. OHSU successfully recruited him from the University of California, San Francisco, in 1986 to head the department, which was something of a homecoming for Dr. Trunkey. During his early medical training he completed an internship at the University of Oregon Medical School (OHSU’s predecessor) and then trained under Dr. Engelbert Dunphy in California following Dr. Dunphy’s departure as chair in Oregon.

At the time of recruitment, Dr. Trunkey was already an internationally renowned trauma surgeon. He was chief of surgery at San Francisco General from 1977 to 1986 and had established a laboratory to study mechanisms of shock at the cellular level. Like Chair Dr. William Krippaehne, he was commissioned with the U.S. Army and had spent two years in Germany as a general medical officer.

Dr. Trunkey was appointed to the chair role at the same time the state of Oregon was in the midst of developing a statewide trauma system. Five Portland health care institutions were vying to become a designated state trauma center. Dr. Trunkey’s appointment provided a significant boost to OHSU’s application and in 1987, OHSU and Legacy Emanuel were designated as Portland’s only Level 1 trauma centers.

Dr. Trunkey’s service in Operation Desert Storm led him to publish an influential commentary on military trauma care called “Lessons Learned” (courtesy Trunkey family)

Five years into his term leading the department, the Army activated Dr. Trunkey to serve in the first Gulf War in 1991. He was stationed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield. He dealt with a number of operational and cultural obstacles that prompted him to publish a commentary in the March 1993 edition of Archives of Surgery called “Lessons Learned.” This document paved the way for how the U.S. Department of Defense trains its trauma personnel today.

Dr. Trunkey’s influence on trauma care was not confined, however, to the military sphere, but was based on a persistent advocacy for optimal treatment of injured patients.

A critical moment in Dr. Trunkey’s career was when he published a paper in 1979 on death rates of trauma patients in the more rural Orange County, California, compared to those in San Francisco County. It was one of the earliest, most persuasive pieces of evidence on the effectiveness of trauma centers. His message was unwavering: injured patients deserve the best trauma care available, and the best care includes an organized trauma system.

Dr. Trunkey, at left in white coat, with Dr. Engelbert Dunphy during his time at UCSF (courtesy Trunkey family)

Dr. Trunkey’s 15-year leadership tenure led to many achievements for the Department of Surgery. One major development was the extension of the already successful kidney transplantation program to include pancreas and liver transplantation. He led the department’s national growth in stature and in reputation – which continues today.

Dr. Trunkey will be remembered by many in the OHSU community who had the personal pleasure of working with him. Known not only for his deftness in surgery and leadership, but for his pokerfaced sense of humor and characteristic candor, he was well-loved, well-respected and exerted an immeasurable influence.

4 responses to “In memoriam: Donald D. Trunkey, M.D. (1937-2019)

  1. What sad news. I worked in the Department of Surgery in the mid to late 90’s. What a huge loss to the surgery world.

  2. I worked with him while I was working in the OHSU ED department as a nurse in the 80’s.. He was always interested in teaching everyone and valued everyone on the ED team. He was an amazing trauma surgeon that when he was called down for a trauma patient his presence would calm and bring confidence to the whole team. I always enjoyed his presence in the ED.

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