John Lumpkin, ’73 BMS, ’74 MD, spent Christmas Eve of his freshman year at Northwestern University Medical School working in the emergency department of nearby Oak Park Hospital, alongside a physician family friend. “I got hooked,” says Lumpkin, now 62. “I found that I was interested in everything while I was in medical school. Emergency medicine lets you do a little bit of just about every medical specialty—from orthopaedics to OB to internal medicine.”
That December 1971 experience had a lasting impression on Lumpkin as he advanced through rotations. “I still wanted to do emergency medicine,” he recalls. “I felt it was a way to allow me to have a broad perspective.”
Northwestern also influenced Dr. Lumpkin’s career choice. “The school was an early pioneer in the field,” he notes. In fact, in his senior year, Lumpkin was able to do a rotation in emergency medicine, “even though at that time it was basically an embryonic field.”
To the best of Lumpkin’s knowledge, he was the first African American residency-trained emergency physician in the country, and when he completed his residency at the University of Chicago in 1978 there were only about 200 residency-trained physicians in the entire nation.
“I feel honored to have been involved in the early days of this critical specialty,” Dr. Lumpkin says. “Now, emergency medicine is one of the most popular residencies. But back then, my colleagues in medical school couldn’t understand why I was going into a field that was not recognized. We were sort of viewed as outliers and cowboys.”
Practicing in a city as diverse as Chicago allowed him the opportunity to treat people in acute life-threatening situations. One of his most memorable patients, while a junior resident, was a 16-year-old male who sustained a single gunshot wound to the chest.
“He took his last breath as he was moved from the ambulance cart into our resuscitation suite,” Lumpkin explains. “One resident intubated the patient, another started an IV line, and I had the job of opening his chest—a crash thoracotomy. I took the scalpel to the pericardium, opened it, and a huge blood clot came out. The patient’s heart started beating and he actually began waking up. If there had been a delay of a minute or two or even three, the patient would have died.”
Lumpkin, who was born in Chicago and grew up in the western suburb of Broadview, attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) his freshman year of college, with the intent of becoming a biophysicist. “However, I realized once I arrived at MIT that I would be spending my life in a laboratory,” he says.
In 1970, Lumpkin transferred into Northwestern’s six-year Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME). After finishing his residency in emergency medicine, he became an instructor and then an assistant professor in emergency medicine at the University of Chicago until 1984. He also served as vice chair of the department from 1981 to 1984 and was co-director of the Chicago Emergency Medical Services (EMS) system from 1980 to 1984.
During his tenure with the Chicago EMS system, a statewide act was passed. “It completely organized the system for training EMTs and paramedics, and how ambulances and hospitals were able to interact across the state,” says Dr. Lumpkin, who was appointed by the governor in 1981 to chair the advisory committee that was created by the act.
New Focus on Public Health
He returned to school in 1984 to pursue an MPH from the University of Illinois School of Public Health while working part time in the emergency department at South Chicago Community Hospital. Upon graduation, he was hired by the Illinois Department of Public Health as a deputy director, where he was in charge of regulating healthcare facilities (hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies). In the late 1980s, the Illinois Trauma Network was created. “This rationalized care, so if someone were injured, instead of being taken to the nearest hospital, they would be taken to a trauma center for the highest level of care,” explains Lumpkin, who was instrumental in developing the vital network.
Soon afterward, in 1990, he was appointed director of the agency and became part of the governor’s cabinet. In 1993, the department created a coordinated, integrated maternal and child health system in the state, with a computer information system that was a prototype for the nation.
From 1987 to 1993, Dr. Lumpkin also served on the board of directors of the American College of Emergency Physicians, where he led the effort that designated the length of residency training in emergency medicine. In addition, from 1996 to 2004, he chaired the National Committee for Vital and Health Statistics that developed the rules for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Lumpkin remained as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health until 2003, when he became a senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., the largest foundation in the nation devoted to health and health care. Foremost among the areas of advocacy is childhood obesity.
“We’ve raised the level of awareness from obscurity in 2003 to it now being a national priority,” he states. “In New York City, Philadelphia and even in the state of Mississippi, there have been measurable decreases in the body mass index (BMI) in children.” Major inroads have also been made in improving the quality of healthcare delivery and encouraging public reporting of quality information.
“One of my good friends from medical school told me in my senior year that I was wasting my career by going into emergency medicine,” says Lumpkin, who has no plans to retire soon. “I ran into her about six years later at a meeting. She had switched careers to emergency medicine.”