Physician at Work: The intense, methodical life of a trauma surgeon

Kimberly Davis has a demanding job in a high stakes environment

Kimberly A. Davis, MD,

Since her days of her childhood in Larchmont, N.Y., Kimberly A. Davis, MD, has had a penchant for taking things apart, finding out what’s wrong with them, and putting them back together. It’s one of several reasons, Dr. Davis said, that she chose to become a trauma surgeon: “I wanted to be able to intervene in the acute episode of a patient’s illness and get them back to their normal level of functioning.” 

Now, she spends her days—and often her nights—helping to repair patients’ bodies, and their live, following traumatic injury. She sees patients during their initial care in the emergency department (ED) at Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH), where she is trauma medical director.

In the ED, patients are resuscitated, given fluids, and sometimes ventilated; their injuries are assessed; and physicians determine what sorts of surgical interventions, if any, they require. “Most of what we see is blunt trauma,” Dr. Davis said, meaning injuries caused by car or motorcycle accidents, and falls. Less commonly, victims of gunshot and stab wounds are treated.

The work is intense, but methodical. “Trauma surgery requires that you address things in specific order,” Dr. Davis said. “You stop the bleeding first. You [then] stop any contamination occurring from holes in the gastrointestinal tract. And depending on whether the patient is stable, you either surgically address all of the patient’s needs at that time or you get them up to the intensive care unit, and you come back to fight another day.”

From basic science to patient care

Dr. Davis first came to Yale in the 1980s as an undergraduate, majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. But after college, a two-year stint as a research assistant in virology at Rockefeller University helped her realize she wanted to pursue a medical degree. “While I found the basic science research very interesting, I decided that I missed the human contact,” she said.

Because the need for rapid care is paramount and the stakes are so high, trauma physicians face unique personal demands. “When you finish caring for a sick patient, you’re absolutely exhausted. You’ve had this huge rush of adrenaline, and then you crash.” It’s a field, Dr. Davis said, in which physicians need to be emotionally resilient. “We often have to tell family members that their loved ones have died. To see a family fall apart, and realize the magnitude of what they’re going through, is difficult to do over and over again without being compartmentalized.”

If urgent patient care has taught her to compartmentalize, it’s a skill Dr. Davis has put to good use. Under her watch, YNHH became the first Level-I Trauma Center in Connecticut for pediatric patients, a designation bestowed by the American College of Surgeons on centers that offer the highest level of surgical care. And as if she weren’t busy enough, in her spare time Dr. Davis completed the executive MBA program in Healthcare Leadership Yale School of Management and graduated in May of 2012.

How has she managed? “I juggled,” she said, “and I have a group of very supportive partners.”

Name: Kimberly A. Davis, MD, MBA

Title: Chief of the Section of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Surgical Emergencies; vice chairman of clinical affairs, Department of Surgery; trauma director, Yale-New Haven Hospital; surgical director, Performance and Quality Improvement, Yale-New Haven Hospital

Area of expertise: Trauma, surgical critical care, elective and emergent general surgery

Place of birth: New York City

Age: 48

College: Yale College

Med School: Albany Medical College

Training: Internship and residency at Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital; fellowship in trauma and surgical critical care, University of Tennessee-Memphis.

What is most challenging to you in academic medicine? The beauty of academic surgery is the opportunity to be challenged by inquisitive medical students and residents, who constantly question the status quo and encourage thinking “outside of the box”.

What is most rewarding? I feel most fortunate to be able to intervene in patients lives during times of crisis after acute illness or injury.

What do you like most about your practice? By their nature, trauma and surgical critical care require multidisciplinary collaboration which allows continual opportunities for information exchange among specialties.

Last book read: “Healthcare will not reform itself,” by George Halvorson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente

What would you do to improve our clinical environment if you had a magic wand? I think the implementation of EPIC, which will improve communication between physicians and other caregivers in both the inpatient and outpatient environments will be a huge step towards improving handoffs across the continuum of care, something that will help to keep our patients safe and minimize redundancies in care.