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‘Chicago Trauma’ looks at aftermath of the city’s crime wave

Attending TraumSurgeDr. Andrew Dennis National Geographic series 'Chicago Trauma.' He is ten-year veteran Cook County Traumwho juggles his career as

Attending Trauma Surgeon Dr. Andrew Dennis on the National Geographic series "Chicago Trauma." He is a ten-year veteran of Cook County Trauma who juggles his career as a surgeon with part-time work as a police officer and medic.(Photo Credit: National Geographic Channels)

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9 to 10 p.m. Tuesday on National Geographic Channel

Updated: October 5, 2012 6:06AM

Chicago’s current epidemic of violence has been well publicized, with reports of shootings and gang warfare now routine fodder for the evening news.

We’re inured to footage of police milling about taped-off crime scenes, mug shots of suspects plastered on the TV screen.

What we haven’t seen much of: What happens to victims right after they’ve been shot or stabbed. That’s the bloody chapter of the city’s tragic story being highlighted in the new show “Chicago Trauma,” airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday on National Geographic Channel.

Set in the Cook County trauma unit at Stroger Hospital, the hourlong program gives viewers an up-close look at the life-or-death dramas that play out at an almost hourly basis in one of the country’s busiest trauma centers. Roughly 5,000 patients get treated at the West Side trauma unit each year, many of them victims of violence.

“It definitely can feel like a battle zone,” says Dr. Andrew Dennis, one of the trauma surgeons featured in the show. He’s also a police officer. “Chicago is a violent city. The upsurges end up on the frontlines, here, with a lot of blood on the floor.”

Ah, yes, blood. It’s on the floor. The walls. The beds. If you can’t stand to look at it, this might not be the program for you. One graphic scene shows the doctors burrowing into a man’s chest, giving us a clear view of his pulsating heart, which wasn’t beating when he was wheeled through the hospital’s doors.

“Chicago Trauma” is the creation of River North-based 20 West Productions, the same production house behind TLC’s bizarre reality hit, “My Strange Addiction.” (Even with all the blood on “Chicago Trauma,” it isn’t as gross as some of the stuff you see on “My Strange Addiction.”)

20 West’s first project was a show called “The Squeeze” for MSNBC. It followed Cook County Sheriff’s investigators in their quest to pump information out of jail inmates. That project helped 20 West forge a relationship with the county’s health department — a relationship that eventually led to the idea for a show on the county’s trauma unit.

“This is very difficult access to get,” said executive producer Melissa Cutlip about the legal and logistical challenges of filming a TV show in a public hospital. And then there’s the issue of getting patients to cooperate.

“Let’s face it: Nobody comes to the trauma center when they’re having a good day,” Cutlip said, estimating that about half of the people they asked agreed to be filmed.

“The second someone said, ‘I’m not interested,’ we walked away,” she said. “I go into every one of these projects thinking nobody’s going to talk, and we always wind up with a good show.”

One of the patients featured in “Chicago Trauma” was shot between the legs by someone he claimed was a random gunman, a familiar refrain among victims.

“It’s not a life-threatening injury, but it’s certainly lifestyle-threatening,” said Dr. Fred Starr in the show. “Most likely he’s going to lose one of his testicles.”

Camera crews followed trauma surgeons Starr and Dennis — and the medical residents they’re training — while they worked their grueling 30-hour shifts.

These are the people that deal with the aftermath of the city’s gang warfare and attempted murders, Cutlip said.

Filming started in late April and wrapped in June. National Geographic Channel green-lit the project in March, before Chicago became the poster child for urban violence. Because the city holds this unwanted title, it gives the show more relevance than ever, Cutlip said.

“It makes it more timely,” said Cutlip, adding that National Geographic has agreed to pick up the program as a series if the ratings are good. “This is an issue in a lot of places in the country, but in Chicago, it seems to be coming to a head.”

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