Remembering a Texas Trauma System Pioneer

It is with great sadness we announce the passing of Dr. Erwin R. Thal.  Doctor Thal passed peacefully in the early morning hours of December 13, 2014 from an acute illness.  Family, friends and colleagues were at his bedside.

Dr. Thal’s work through the American College of Surgeons’ (ACS) Committee on Trauma (COT) transformed the care of the injured patient. He and his colleagues developed and implemented the Trauma Center Verification Program. Under Dr. Thal’s leadership and guidance as the Chair of the ACS Committee on Trauma, the Trauma Center Verification Program moved from an idea to a reality. His energetic leadership provided the driving force for this program. The principles developed by Dr. Thal and his colleagues have become the building blocks of the American College of Surgeons’ approach to quality improvement and health care reform. As a result, his work has both improved and continues to improve care for literally millions of injured or ill patients worldwide. Doctor Thal served as Chair of the ACS, Committee on Trauma from 1986 to 1990.  In 1992, Dr. Thal was honored as the Scudder Orator where he presented his address, Out of Apathy.

Doctor Thal attended and graduated from medical school at The Ohio State University School of Medicine. He completed his internship at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1963. He then spent two years in United States Air Force as a Captain, serving at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia, where he received the Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service in 1966.  Upon returning to Parkland and completing his general surgery residency, he then became a member of the UT Southwestern Department of Surgery faculty.

Since 1982, he had served as a Professor in the Department of Surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He was a beloved and inspirational leader at UT Southwestern and Parkland for fifty years. In this role, he led and developed the Dallas EMS system and continuously advocated for improvements in the Emergency Department at Parkland Hospital. In 1972, Dr. Thal was one of three surgeons who, with Chief Bill Roberts, developed and implemented the Dallas EMS System, which also included the development of the EMT training program. He was a champion for the EMS Act of 1973. In 1974, he and his colleagues expanded the program to include the paramedic training program. He then served as Chair of the EMS Advisory Committee from 1974 to1993.

Doctor Thal also advocated for the Parkland Emergency Department during these same years. He served as Chair of the Emergency Room Committee from 1971 to 1979. In 1985, Dr. Thal was made an Honorary Fire Chief by the Dallas Fire Department. In 1973 he was a co-course director for the American College of Surgeons’ course, “Treatment of Seriously Injured or Ill in the Emergency Department”. He also served as chair of the local Committee on Trauma for Dallas from 1974 to 1995.

In Texas, Dr. Thal was one of a handful of key leaders responsible for establishing, developing and launching the Texas Trauma System. His leadership was essential to the creation of a robust Texas trauma system. Doctor Thal served as State Chair of the Committee on Trauma’s North Texas Chapter from 1974 to 1982 and served on the Texas Trauma Technical Advisory Committee from 1990 to1995. Additionally, he was a member of the Emergency Health Care Advisory Committee, Trauma Sub-Committee from 1996 to1998. He was one of the key leaders, along with Dr. Ken Mattox, from Houston, to assist in drafting the first Texas trauma system rules. These rules called for the state to be divided into twenty-two trauma service areas for regional system planning, trauma facility designation standards, state trauma registry standards, injury prevention and outreach education. These rules were implemented by the Texas Department of Health in 1992. He later served as the Chair of the North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council from 1993 to 1995.

Dr. Thal demonstrated extraordinary commitment to his community and served in multiple volunteer roles through his career. He served on the American Red Cross’ Board of Directors from 1977 to present. He was a member of the Board of Trustees for the Dallas Cardiac Institute from 1981 to 1985. He was a member of the Greater Dallas Injury Prevention Center’s Advisory Board from 1994 to 1996. He served on the committees for the Texas Medical Association, American Association for the Surgery of Trauma (Vice Chair 1996 to 1997), Southwestern Surgical Congress, Western Surgical Association and the International Society of Surgery. His commitment to education and the advancement of knowledge led him to author over one-hundred publications.

Doctor Thal’s abundant enthusiasm and outgoing, inspirational personality will be profoundly missed. However, his legacy lives on in the efforts of the ACS Committee on Trauma, and the Texas trauma system.  That legacy and spirit is clearly visible today in the efforts to continually improve and advance the care of injured patients in trauma centers across the world.

Memorial services were held at on Tuesday, December 16th at Temple Shalom in Dallas, followed by a burial ceremony at Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery. Afterwards, he was remembered by friends, family and colleagues in a reception at Temple Shalom.