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BMC Trauma Chief Drowns in Boating Accident

Erwin Hirsch memorial is Thursday


A photo of Erwin F. Hirsch Erwin F. Hirsch, a much-respected and well-loved physician who served as chief of trauma surgery at Boston Medical Center for 25 years, died Friday, May 23, after his dinghy capsized in the harbor off Rockport, Maine. The 72-year-old surgeon was legendary for his efforts to provide the highest quality care to all patients, regardless of their finances or personal histories, and for his seemingly inexhaustible energy and goodwill.

“Dr. Hirsch was instrumental in the development of the Boston Medical Center level one trauma center, which is one of the best of its type in the world,” said Aram Chobanian (Hon.’06), president emeritus of Boston University and dean emeritus of the BU School of Medicine. “He not only was an outstanding surgeon, but he had the organizational skills to develop an intricate and coordinated system for care for the most complicated trauma patients. He also worked internationally to develop trauma centers in other countries. He trained innumerable medical students and house officers, and his legacy will live on through them.”

Jonathan Olshaker, chief of emergency medicine at BMC and chair of the MED department of emergency medicine, said Hirsch would truly be missed. “Erwin Hirsch was an amazing man,” said Olshaker. “His dedication to his patients, residents, and students was simply unsurpassed.”

Peter Burke, BMC chief of critical care and a colleague of Hirsch’s for 10 years, said the center was very fortunate to have had the enormous experience that Hirsch brought with him. "One of his strengths was that he was able to teach the rest of us how to deliver excellent trauma care,” said Burke. “So while he is gone now, his knowledge is not.” 

The Boston Globe reported that as many of his peers retired, Hirsch continued to accept as many overnight rotations as surgeons half his age, that he encouraged his staff to engage in cutting-edge research on trauma interventions, and that he told his medical students to never ignore a child’s birthday.

John Auerbach, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, described Hirsch as a great friend and advisor to the department for more than 25 years. Hirsch was an original member of the DPH Trauma Advisory Committee and served as its chairman until his death. “His leadership drove the development of the state’s Trauma Registry,” said Auerbach. “His efforts will improve emergency trauma care for all the residents of the commonwealth. In addition to the countless lives that he saved as a skilled surgeon, it is fitting that his legacy of service in the creation of the Registry will help save many more lives in the future." Karen Antman, dean of the School of Medicine and provost of the Medical Campus, and Elaine Ullian, president and CEO of Boston Medical Center, said both institutions are grieving the institutions’ loss. "We are shocked and saddened by this news,” wrote Antman and Ullian in a joint statement. “Dr. Hirsch served as chief of trauma surgery at BMC for more than 25 years and was professor of surgery at Boston University School of Medicine. He exemplified our mission of providing exceptional care, without exception. He was a talented surgeon whose primary focus was advancing the treatment of trauma victims. Many people are alive today because of the work of Dr. Hirsch and the trauma team at BMC. Our thoughts and sympathies are with his family.” “Dr. Hirsch is beloved by his residents and his students,” Antman added. “He is a legend. He has been saving lives for decades. If you suffered a trauma in this region, you wanted to be air-lifted to him and treated in his department.”

The Globe reported that Hirsch, who lived in Marblehead, Mass., was in a dinghy in Rockport Harbor with Kevin Wilkins, a 46-year-old resident of Salem, Mass., when the boat capsized and both men were thrown into 48-degree water. After clinging to a moored boat for more than a half hour, Wilkins was pulled from the water and treated for hypothermia. Wilkins alerted rescuers to the disappearance of Hirsch, who was pulled from the water and given CPR. Hirsch was pronounced dead at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport.

Suresh Agarwal, a trauma surgeon at BMC, told the Globe that the opportunity to work with Hirsch was the reason he came to Boston Medical Center. “He was a father, a friend, a role model, and someone I aspire to be like,” said Agarwal. “He is a true giant in American trauma surgery.”

A memorial service has been scheduled for Thursday, May 29, at noon in front of the Moakley Building at Boston Medical Center, 830 Harrison Ave.

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