A Profile of James Dunford, MD '76 Recipient of the 2017 James O. Page/JEMS Leadership Award
By Lauren Crosby, NREMT
It would be easy to trip over the seemingly endless supply of plaques and awards possessed by James Dunford, MD, if they weren't so meticulously tucked away out of sight. The fact that the awards are hidden behind his well-organized desk isn't because their owner trivializes them. It's merely a testament to the disarming humility of this emergency physician.
Dunford isn't in it for the praise. He's on a tireless quest to fix a broken system. But talent like his can't hide behind a desk, which is why it's no surprise that he's the 2017 James O. Page/JEMS Leadership Award recipient.
Dunford passionately believes in helping some of society's most vulnerable patients who often pose the biggest financial burden on the healthcare system and subsequently drain taxpayer dollars.
Succinctly put, Dunford observed that "100% of what comes into the hospital is broken, and 90% of it didn't have to be."
It's from this belief that he's been instrumental in implementing several key projects for his city, including San Diego Project Heart Beat, the Resource Access Program (RAP), Project 25, and countless medical trials in coordination with such impressive medical institutions as National Institutes of Health (NIH), Resuscitation Outcomes Consortium (ROC), and the American Heart Association (AHA).
When asked why he chose medicine as a profession, Dunford responds like so many other gifted yet unassuming innovators who seem to stumble into their brilliance: He delivers a casual shrug and smile, saying it never really crossed his mind.
Having lived in six different cities by the age of 15, Dunford developed resilience early on and quickly realized he wanted to surround himself with intelligent, like-minded individuals in his education.
The first to graduate from college in his family, he actually credits a friend for pushing him toward medicine. At the time, Dunford imagined applying his altruistic nature and academic curiosity to helping the planet through science. His friend challenged him to use his talents to save people and to leave the algae to others, and after receiving his first acceptance letter to medical school, Dunford began to recognize his ability to build a career in medicine.
He enrolled in Columbia University's medical school and distinctly remembers the moment in anatomy lab, when, after working on a cadaver for six weeks, its face was finally revealed-a sweet old woman with a pink bow in her hair. This planted the seed for his strong connection with his patients.
But it was one of the first weekends he put his white coat on that resonated most. He was observing in the ED when an elderly male trauma patient from a motor vehicle crash was rolled in. Asked to hold a catheter, he watched in horror as blood gushed from the patient's bladder, which had been ruptured by a severe pelvic fracture. After 15 seconds, he thought he might faint and excused himself.
At that moment, he recalled a story his dad, a pilot in World War II, once told him. After witnessing a dozen fellow pilots die in a plane accident when their parachutes didn't open in time, Dunford's dad and other pilots were immediately ordered up in the air before they could let the fear of the situation cripple them. So Dunford decided to jump back in the saddle with his trauma patient.
He thought to himself, "Now I've got to decide whether I'm going to be a subjective college kid who's going to faint at the sight of blood or if I'm going to become the guy who fixes problems like this. The sooner I can get to that strategy, the better off I'll be."
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