The Angel of EMS: San Antonio Physician Teaches Those Who Help Others

Texas Medicine Logo

Trusted Leader - July 2006  

By  Erin Prather
Associate Editor

Donald Gordon, MD, doesn't personally ride with every emergency medical crew answering a 911 call in South Texas, but you could make an argument that he's with them in spirit. That's because they often use what he taught them in going to the aid of ill or injured patients.

Education is a constant theme in Dr. Gordon's life. As a faculty member of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, he has taught both medical students and colleagues on topics ranging from first response emergency medicine to cardiac life support to diabetic emergencies.

"For me it made sense to be deeply involved with first responders, the folks who are out there on the front lines of emergency medicine. Through volunteering with organizations like the Red Cross, I've contributed to research-based advisories on how to take care of people when first injured. It helps the entire EMS system; people are in better shape when the paramedics arrive, in better shape when they get to the hospital, and in better shape when they reach the specialists."

He says the most gratifying part of being an educator is receiving calls from his former students.

"I like to hear students say, 'What you told me in class was right, it worked.' About three years ago I taught a triage class and discussed how the students might be called to use their skills when they least expected it. Two months later, a student from that class called to say something similar had happened and he knew what to do. That's a golden moment; it's what I draw from when asked why I do what I do."

Throughout his career, Dr. Gordon has been involved with many groups intent on continuously improving health care. He is affiliated with more than 20 associations and organizations, including the Texas Medical Association, the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Medical Advisory Board, the EMS Medical Directors of Texas, the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center, and the American Red Cross.

In May, Dr. Gordon received the Red Cross's Health & Safety Volunteer of the Year Award. The award is presented nationally to one person each year for service to health education, first aid, and safety.

His work with the Red Cross chapter in San Antonio has been ongoing since 1987. He has been on its board of directors for 16 years and its volunteer medical director since 1992. He worked with Red Cross national headquarters in 1999 to establish the Advisory Council on First Aid and Safety and was its chair until 2005. He also has worked with the Red Cross European Working Group on First Aid Education as the liaison representative of the national headquarters since 2002, and he participated in the writing and review of the organization's policy that melds more than 40 countries in Europe to one doctrine of first aid.

In addition to his Red Cross service, Dr. Gordon is a member of TMA's Board of Councilors and Council on Public Health. He also volunteers for the American Heart Association and the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center, where he serves on the Medical & Scientific Advisory Committee.

The Red Cross award is the latest in a lengthy list of honors Dr. Gordon has received in his career. In 1997, for example, he received TMA's Golden Apple Award for outstanding service in public health. In 2002, he was named one of San Antonio Business Journal 's Health Care Heroes, and in 2005, he received the Physician of the Year Award from the San Antonio N.W. Chamber of Commerce. He also has received distinguished service awards from the American Heart Association's San Antonio division and awards from various local, state, and national organizations. 

A Change of Heart

Dr. Gordon received his PhD from Oregon State University in 1971 and planned to be a chemist. Although his mother, a nurse, had encouraged him to become a physician, he resisted because he was unsure if he could handle "the blood and guts."

That changed while serving in the Army in Vietnam. "There I saw a lot of blood and guts and was intimately involved with the stuff. I went on to teach physical chemistry at West Point and actually began directing some of my cadets to medical school. After sending 17, I decided it was actually time for me to go to medical school."

After completing his medical degree at the University of Maryland in 1977, Dr. Gordon came to Texas for his residency at San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center. Interested in becoming a pediatrician, then a surgeon, he finally settled on emergency response and ultimately pursued emergency medical services.

He chairs the DSHS Preparedness Coordinating Council, which organizes and prepares recommendations for the mobilization of volunteers to meet disaster situations in Texas. He works closely with Texas Health Commissioner Eduardo Sanchez, MD, who completed an emergency room surgical rotation under Dr. Gordon during the first Gulf War.

Dr. Sanchez says Dr. Gordon can be counted on "to have some statistic, some perspective, some viewpoint on what improvement might be made by the state, particularly in the field of emergency medical services. Texas is in a different place than five years ago; the medical community's role regarding preparedness is a high priority. Dr. Gordon brings an important perspective to the table and reminds others how important it is for the medical community to be involved in this activity."

When asked why he continues to volunteer countless hours to medicine, Dr. Gordon compares his commitments to scratching an itch.

"A lot of sacrifice is made to become a physician. When you're younger, fresh out of medical school, you're involved with developing a role in the medical community. Young physicians learn how to take care of their business, pay off their debts. Then one day they wake up and realize there is more to all this. That's when most start community service. Whatever their motives are, it goes back to that basic need to serve, which is instilled in our profession. Satisfying that need is like scratching an itch. The more you scratch it, the more it itches," he said.

"There comes a point in life when money doesn't really mean anything; power means even less. What matters is what a person can do for others."

Erin Prather can be reached at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1385, or (512) 370-1385; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email at Erin Prather. 

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