The Doctor Is In
Bill Schwab ’68, esteemed trauma surgeon, administrator, and educator, brings eclectic experience to his new role as IC’s board chair. by Tamar Morad
As a young physician in the early 1970s, Charles William “Bill” Schwab ’68, M.D., worked with a group of surgeons at the U.S. Naval Regional Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, watching as fleets of stretchers unloaded combat casualties from Vietnam.
It was a moment in time when medical technology for the treatment of trauma victims was being forced to progress fast, enabling more and more soldiers to survive their injuries—and Schwab had found himself on the front lines of the phenomenon in life-saving health care.
“Vietnam left an impression on me forever,” says Schwab, who was then doing his internship and residency and was part of a team of surgeons, many who ultimately made multiple breakthroughs in trauma care.
Since those troubled days for the United States, Schwab has become one of the country’s top experts in trauma care, with particular expertise in trauma systems and the treatment of gunshot wounds.
The newly elected chair of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees never went into private practice. Instead, his passion for teaching and research led him to the classroom, and since 1987 he has been professor of surgery and chief of the Division of Traumatology and Surgical Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. But as his expertise has grown, so have his duties, and in practice he only spends about a fifth of his time with patients, including time doing surgery and hands-on instruction of medical students. Mostly he finds himself shuttling between Penn’s three regional trauma centers—of which the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia is one, and all of which he manages—and flying to other cities in the United States and abroad to teach at other university hospitals. Because his work has helped make Penn an internationally renowned center for trauma and critical care, he also mentors trauma surgeons who come in from all over the world to learn.
In Schwab’s early days at Penn, he again found himself at the epicenter of trauma treatment—only this time it was firearm injuries, his patients victims of Philadelphia’s massive epidemic of gun violence that swept through its poor inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s. “As I began to treat these young victims, I realized that most injuries were preventable, which meant that a huge component of our efforts must include prevention,” he says. “That creates a need for the study of the root causes of trauma cases—like how to prevent vehicular crashes or reduce gun violence.” Thus over the years Schwab has committed himself to improving public policy on the causes of violent injuries and identifying preventive strategy that works. For his success he has found himself in high demand as a consultant to both hospitals and to state and local governments and federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Highway Safety Administration.
That leaves little time for much else—save Ithaca College.
Bill and his wife, Marjorie Rooke Schwab ’69, have a long history with Ithaca College, of which their undergraduate studies were just the beginning. Bill enrolled at Ithaca as a physical education major. He soon realized that his dream was to be a physician. This would take proving himself in the sciences—and in a big way, as no IC student had yet gone directly to med school after graduation. So he switched first to biology, then to chemistry.
A straight-A student, Schwab spent three summers on campus doing scientific research—mostly with IC chemistry professor Heinz Koch, whom Schwab says had a major influence on his career—and teaching organic chemistry. He graduated summa cum laude with the added bonus of an honors degree in chemistry from the American Chemical Society, and gained early acceptance to medical school.
Schwab has continued to be a passionate advocate of the sciences over the years as trustee, vice chair, and now board chair. “Bill has kept everyone on the board focused on the importance of having enough senior faculty members to do the heavy lifting for the science departments and being proactive about the hiring process for incoming faculty and the retention of junior faculty,” says trustee and most recent past chair of the board William Haines, now chair emeritus. “Those efforts have helped make the sciences superb at Ithaca.”
As single-minded as Schwab was about his studies while on campus, he was also a “die-hard romantic,” he confesses, and his choice of medical school, State University of New York College of Medicine at Syracuse (now SUNY Upstate Medical University) was determined by one factor: he wanted to be near his future wife, music major Marjorie Rooke. Marjorie was president of IC’s Mu Phi Epsilon, the music sorority, and a member of the Women’s Governing Board, a part of student government.
Both Schwabs think of their Ithaca days “with great fondness and romantic memories,” says Marjorie. They met on the first day of her freshman year. “I was working at the cafeteria,” she recalls. “I offered him green jello, and he accepted it. He asked me to a movie on the quad, and from there on it was history.” Marjorie, who grew up on a farm in Lyons, New York, is the daughter of an early IC grad, Charles Rooke ’37 (now deceased), a music major who patched together a diverse career as vocalist, farmer, and insurance agent.
As an elementary school music teacher, Marjorie paid her husband’s way through medical school. She no longer teaches at a school but has a freelance career as a piano accompanist for children’s and adults’ recitals and gives private music lessons.
Meanwhile, the Schwabs’ daughter, Jennifer Schwab Medina ’93, followed in her parents’ footsteps not only in choosing Ithaca but also in finding her mate there: Sammy Medina ’92. One Schwab son, Charles William II, attended Cornell, and a second, Timothy, “broke the Ithaca theme,” jokes his father, by going to Denison University in Ohio. Marjorie and Bill now live in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
Trauma Care Visionary
With his IC years and Vietnam behind him, by his mid-30s Bill Schwab had already experienced three lasting imprints on his life and career, including his marriage to Marjorie. He spent nine years in active service in the U.S. Navy, and since has been a commander in the naval reserves. His first academic appointment came in 1980, when Eastern Virginia Medical School hired him to help develop its trauma center and helicopter air evacuation program “at a time when the value of these two things and especially their linkage were just starting to be understood and there were few of them around,” he notes.
After that he headed up trauma services at Norfolk General Hospital in Virginia and at Cooper Hospital at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Camden, New Jersey. Both were places where trauma care mostly involved vehicular crashes, and he became an active proponent of studying injuries caused by highway accidents and of improving highway and vehicle safety.
At Penn, the trauma center continues to see hundreds of firearms victims every year and has recently witnessed a new surge in injuries from gun violence that is being mirrored in a handful of other U.S. cities, worrying sociologists, doctors, and mayors. But because of the earlier epidemic—and the top-flight team of surgeons and other specialists that Schwab has nurtured over the years—Penn is prepared. Aided by six helicopters that comprise the PennSTAR Flight program, which Schwab developed, the trauma center treated some 3,400 patients last year alone, about 500 of them victims of gunshot wounds.
Medical personnel, however, are only part of a diverse team that Schwab has assembled at Penn’s trauma center. The center employs medical faculty and fellows, nurses and allied health professionals, and scientific doctorate-holders who conduct research and generate studies on the causes of gun violence and on how to better treat these wounds, understand shock, and save lives. “We dissect the causes and solutions for injury from every angle,” says Schwab. His own curriculum vitae contains over 200 peer-reviewed articles, some of which are the most highly cited in trauma surgery.
He and his team have gained particular prominence in the study of “trauma systems,” those within specific regional areas for rescuing trauma victims within short periods of time—typically defined as under one hour—and getting them to top-notch trauma centers. This requires well-trained personnel and dedicated equipment, including outfitted helicopters. The three Philadelphia regional hospitals whose trauma centers Schwab manages work in such a way. One study Schwab coauthored found that only 70 percent of Americans live in areas with access to trauma systems—a figure he is trying to raise through work with legislators in Washington, D.C., and hospital leadership across the country.
It is Schwab’s work on reducing firearm-related injuries for which he has become most widely known and sought after. Firearm and Injury Center at Penn (FICAP), which he established in 1997, conducts re- search and promotes better public policy towards reducing such injuries. But preventing firearm injuries is a major uphill battle, he admits. “If we were to compare America’s progress in the area of reducing injuries from gun violence to cancer research and treatment, I would say we’re right about where cancer was in the 1950s,” he says. In that decade, scientists had gained an understanding of how cancer kills but hadn’t started trying to find ways to cure it or reduce its root causes. “Politics—the gun lobby—has played a major role in why we are going too slowly” with reducing firearm violence, Schwab says. “Any disease that kills 30,000 Americans a year requires all of us to lower this toll.”
For a surgeon who knows how to close up gaping wounds and put limbs back in place, such thinking about a public health problem is undoubtedly out-of-the-box. His ability to look at a complex medical phenomenon from a variety of angles, taking into account sociological, psychological, political, and historical perspectives, is something, he avers, he began to learn at Ithaca. IC’s Koch, who considers his former student the world’s foremost expert in trauma, says the fact that Schwab did “undergraduate research has helped him in his career, and he was good at it because he didn’t have only the brains, but also a creative and imaginative mind.”
A Pair of Altruists
In 2004 the Schwabs pledged $50,000 to help fund the Heinz and Judy Koch Fund, which supports student research, in honor of his mentor. They continue to be über-active on campus, and their list of donations and commitments to the school is lengthy. Bill was elected to the board of trustees in 1989, resigned a decade later when his term limit was up (which coincided with his need to focus on a burgeoning workload at Penn), and was reelected in 2001. In 2004 he became vice chair, and last year he was named interim chair. This February he was elected chair. Over the years he has been a member of a half-dozen committees, including the Presidential Search Committee that identified and hired Peggy R. Williams in 1997. And he and Marjorie have funded multiple scholarships, awards, and campus initiatives.
Marjorie headed up the fundraising campaign in the early 1990s for the School of Music’s James J. Whalen Center, which raised $12.5 million. For that success, she received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1999. Board chair emeritus Haines, who worked with her on the campaign, calls her “indefatigable.” Marjorie “loved the experience,” she says, in part because it allowed her to “reconnect with friends and professors.” She currently sits on the College’s National Leadership Council, which is helping spearhead the comprehensive campaign.
Starting with their own love affair 40 years ago, the Schwabs say they have many reasons to feel passionate about Ithaca. But, admits Bill, one of Ithaca’s most compelling features is hardly scientific. “I love its geography and its weather,” he says. “Although it’s tough for eight months out of the year, the other four months are like you’ve died and gone to heaven. And it feels like home to me—emotionally I’ve never left Ithaca.”
Schwab believes that his unique experience, including administering very complex systems and programs, will help him, as board chair, to make the College even better. “I understand how boards govern and what the boards of American colleges and universities do,” he points out, “but in my other life I’m a member of a faculty. That experience can help me improve the quality of our education and our academic standards as a comprehensive college.”
“Ithaca is one of the most gorgeous places in the world, and academically it is extremely well thought of among competitive schools in the United States. We are already at or near the top in many departments, and my efforts would be to push that academic rigor across the schools in all the disciplines.”
Schwab has big plans, but considering all he has accomplished already it is not hard to imagine that he will be successful in his latest challenge. “In every part of your life,” Schwab says, “there are different stages, different priorities. I love my teaching and clinical work, but I also love Ithaca and working with the board. This work is a unique opportunity for me, and it is also truly for the greater good."