dwayne johnson

Dwayne Johnson

Lead Violence Response Specialist, University of Chicago Medicine

People who come to the University of Chicago Medicine emergency department (ED) after experiencing trauma need world-class care to heal physically — and they need expert help to heal emotionally, too. In 2018, the Urban Health Initiative (UHI) launched the Violence Recovery Program (VRP) to help patients and their families recover from trauma.

“We meet patients and families at the door of the ED,” says Dwayne Johnson, the VRP’s lead violence recovery specialist. He and other specialists provide immediate support, which can mean anything from getting food and water for the patient to helping families navigate the hospital, facilitating updates from physicians, and even arranging for a viewing for the family if the patient doesn’t survive.

“We don’t just hand someone a phone number telling them who to call for help. We make sure all the barriers are broken down for access to care and resources — and that might mean making the call for them or with them, taking them to an appointment, or walking hand-in-hand with them into their first therapy appointment.”

When the patient is nearing discharge, the care team completes needs and safety assessments; then, says Johnson, “we assertively engage to be that connective tissue to services or resources based on what the client identifies as their most important needs.”

That might include referrals to community-based organizations that partner with the UHI and provide housing, education, employment, food, chemical dependency treatment, mental health services, transportation, and other essentials. Research shows that victims of violence are at high risk of being re-injured or injuring someone else, and “these social determinants of health can also be indicators of the likelihood of violence,” Johnson explains. “It all adds up, and it’s all important.”

Johnson came to violence recovery work after his own family felt the reverberations of trauma. “Thirty-two years ago, I lost an uncle, who was like a father figure to me, to gun violence,” he says. His uncle was cared for at UChicago Medicine, where “our family was treated with compassion, dignity, and respect — but when I look back on the trajectory of my life and other family members’ lives afterward, I see how that experience adversely affected us.

“We had symptoms of trauma that we didn’t realize we were experiencing,” which exacerbated chemical dependency challenges, chronic illnesses, and other challenges for Johnson’s family members. “Crisis intervention would have been huge for us. Compassionate support and psychoeducation in the moment, and follow-up to connect the family to resources, would have had a significant impact,” he says.

Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social work while working as a shuttle bus driver, patient transportation specialist, housekeeper, and community relations coordinator at UChicago Medicine. When the University’s new trauma center opened in 2018, he was one of two founding team members of the VRP, which is the only hospital-based violence intervention program in Chicago that serves both adults and children. The team has since grown to eleven members.

“Unfortunately, we’re super busy,” Johnson says. So far this year, shootings in Chicago are up more than 33 percent over 2019, and domestic violence incidents have also spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its founding, the VRP has worked with more than 3,000 patients and 1,200 families.

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