Newswise — By the time first responders rushed the patient to Red Duke Trauma Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, life was already slipping away through a stab wound in the neck. The steady drum of the patient’s heart faded as the trauma team roared into action. Their goal: resuscitate and transfer the patient to the operating room, where Laura J. Moore, MD, with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), would reconstruct his severed blood vessels.

“Our entire team came together to bring this person back to life,” said Moore, professor in the Department of Surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “The patient arrived at the hospital without a pulse, and was able to walk out with our help. Cases like this remind me why I love being a trauma surgeon.”

While each trauma case presents unique challenges, Moore cherishes every opportunity to use her surgical expertise to help patients in their greatest times of need. Additionally, as medical director of the Shock Trauma Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Hermann-TMC, she leads multidisciplinary teams comprising physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, trainees, and other support staff who work together to stabilize critically ill and injured patients.

Moore traces her passion for trauma surgery back to an undergraduate summer internship shadowing an orthopedic surgery team. Her interest led her to McGovern Medical School, where she earned her MD in 2000 and completed her Surgical Critical Care Fellowship in 2006. In 2011, she returned to join the faculty in the Department of Surgery.

“UTHealth has always been at the forefront of care, research, and education in trauma surgery, so my decision to come back was easy,” she said. “Our hospital partner Memorial Hermann is also home to the busiest trauma center in the country, and we have the resources to give our patients excellent outcomes. This is the best place in the world for a trauma surgeon.”

Moore always dreamed of tackling the opportunities and challenges of being a trauma surgeon, but she never imagined standing on the front lines of one of the world’s greatest health crises. Unpredictability punctuates the field of trauma, but the added uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic have morphed into new hurdles.

In addition to adapting to new policies that minimize risk of exposure, such as increasing levels of personal protective equipment and convening meetings virtually instead of in person, Moore describes caring for a dramatic increase in patients who have suffered injuries associated with violence and substance abuse.

“With the pandemic, people are understandably stressed about the economy, their jobs, and their health, and many don’t have access to the coping mechanisms they previously relied on,” she said. “Unfortunately, these unchecked stressors can lead to violence or substance abuse, and we see the results of that in the emergency room.”

Houston officials corroborate this spike in violence, noting an 11% increase in violent crime.

While the pandemic has created a host of new challenges in trauma care, it has also opened an unlikely research opportunity for Moore to make a difference in the lives of patients with the deadliest complication of COVID-19—acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This life-threatening injury allows fluid to leak into the lungs, causing extreme breathing difficulties that often require treatment with a ventilator.

Moore is leading the UTHealth arm of a multicenter clinical trial to treat patients with ARDS using mesenchymal stem cells, which are derived from the bone marrow of healthy donors. Preclinical trials have shown these stem cells to help regulate immune response, lowering inflammation and reducing the severity of organ injury.

“We originally conceived this trial before the pandemic to treat ARDS in patients who suffer severe trauma,” explained Moore. “Now, we have the opportunity to help our community persevere through the most devastating consequence of COVID-19.”

Whether through finding ways to save lives during the pandemic or rescuing trauma victims from the brink of death, Moore is creating better outcomes for patients and paving the path for the next generation of trauma surgeons to follow.

“Dr. Moore is one of the extraordinary surgeons and faculty members who sets our trauma program apart,” said Michelle K. McNutt, MD, associate professor in the Department of Surgery at McGovern Medical School and trauma medical director at Memorial Hermann Hospital-TMC. “We couldn’t ask for a better surgeon, team member, or mentor.”