The walls are covered with brilliantly colored balloon sculptures. There is a bubble machine and a face-painting booth. Two golden retrievers named Fergus and Casper happily accept pats.

It’s not the image most people have when they think of a trauma center.

The Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center Trauma Survivors Reunion started a decade ago, when a LAC+USC trauma surgeon saw a former patient walk into the hospital. The young man had been unresponsive the last time the surgeon had seen him; now he was back in school. While most doctors and nurses in critical care don’t know what happens to their patients once they’re whisked off to long-term care, this surgeon realized how moving it is to be able to see a patient in recovery.

“The reunion is as much for staff as it is for survivors,” said Lydia Lam, MD, assistant professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, at this year’s 10-year anniversary event on May 20.

“It’s about connection,” explained Demetrios Demetriades, MD, PhD, professor of surgery and chief of the division of acute care surgery and surgical critical care. “We meet under very different circumstances. This is an opportunity to celebrate life.”

That celebration is evident as former patients enter the room: Doctors and nurses light up with recognition and rush to say hello. Demetriades referred to many of the patients as “walking miracles.”

The reunion is a labor of love for the trauma team. Lam emceed this year’s ceremony and has taken on organizing the event since the beginning, putting in eight months of planning with the reunion committee for this year’s event. Patricia Tapia, RN, and the team spent three days making the astonishing balloon art.

Two former patients were among the featured speakers. Alfonso Morillo was in a car accident that left him with traumatic brain injuries and fractures to his C1 and C2 vertebrae. He spoke about what it felt like to have the nurses gather and applaud him when he took his first steps.

“It’s easy to become attached to patients,” said Nurse Manager Martha Navarro, RN, “especially when they’re like this one.”

L.A. Sheriff’s Deputy Elwood Crane was helping with a forklift loading project when a 350-pound pallet fell on him. Crane credited a quick-thinking colleague with calling a helicopter to airlift him straight to LAC+USC. Crane said he is now at the gym six days a week working on his recovery and spoke movingly about how his accident helped him to become more compassionate toward others. He said he now takes nothing for granted.

The reunion ended with surgeons and nurses personally handing out goody bags to their former patients – one last chance to connect.

— Lex Davis