Remembering EMS and trauma care pioneer Dr. Norman McSwain

The impact of McSwain will live on in PHTLS-trained EMS providers and in the countless lives they have saved and will continue to save in the years ahead

A paramedic, EMT, or physician cares for one patient at a time. An EMS educator can prepare 20 paramedics to treat 20 patients at a time. 

Dr. Norman McSwain, founder of the NAEMT Prehospital Trauma Life Support program, died at his home on July 29. McSwain is one of the greatest force multipliers EMS has ever known. The PHTLS program has trained over one million providers in more than 60 countries around the world. The patients that have benefited from so many EMS providers completing PHTLS, as well as Trauma First Response, Tactical Combat Casualty Care and Tactical Emergency Casualty Care, is orders of magnitude greater. 

For many EMS providers PHTLS was not only a certification, but a rite of passage into the trauma care system. The control of life-threatening hemorrhage, opening and maintenance of an airway, recognition of shock and splinting an unstable fracture are opportunities for EMS providers to truly make a difference in life or death. These skills, along with trauma patient assessment, are at the core of what PHTLS taught under McSwain’s lasting leadership. 

Norman McSwain, MD, FACS (Image courtesy NAEMT)
Norman McSwain, MD, FACS (Image courtesy NAEMT) (Image courtesy NAEMT)

EMS1 contributors, columnists and readers share their memories of McSwain, his impact on them personally and EMS globally. 

A lifetime of contribution to EMS, medicine and surgery
Norm McSwain was not only a surgeon's surgeon, but a gentleman who never forgot his roots. He spent his life contributing to EMS, to medicine and to surgery. I asked Norm a couple years ago when I ran into him at a trauma surgery conference when he planned to retire. "Never," was his answer, "why would I leave something I love so much?"  And that he did, right up until his death.  

Not a week would go by that Norm would not engage someone on a trauma, surgery, critical care, or EMS Internet list, advocating for what he believed was best for patient care. He also made a point throughout his career to engage with others, encourage newcomers and share his expertise. Countless young medics, nurses, and surgeons tell stories about Norm approaching them at a meeting or conference to introduce himself and welcome them into the fold. That was exactly the kind of man Norm McSwain was: the trauma surgeon we all would want if we ever needed one, the teacher we all learned so many lessons from, and the all around, down to earth person you could call, email, or sit down and have a drink with just like your neighbor next door.  

The legacy he leaves behind spans a lifelong love of giving to patients and those who care for them. I will miss my friend Norm McSwain but I will never forget everything he has done to leave all of us in a better place for his having lived among us.

Mike McEvoy, PhD, NRP, RN, CCRN
EMS Coordinator - Saratoga County, New York
Chief Medical Officer - West Crescent Fire Department
EMS Section Board Member - International Association of Fire Chiefs

A legend who moved mountains
There are only a select few among us who give so much. But it isn’t only that they give so much, they never take anything back for themselves except the occasional satisfaction of doing well for an individual or an entire profession. People who could easily get by on brilliance and personality doing a little, but instead move mountains. These few are the legends and Dr. McSwain was indeed one. 

Daniel Limmer
Co- Founder & Chief Pass-ologist
Limmer Creative

A giant in EMS, trauma care and a gentleman
October, 1993. I had been an EMT for only six months, and an instructor for three months. I was in paramedic school at the time, and NHTSA was rolling out what would become the 1994 EMT-B Curriculum. One of the rollouts was in New Orleans.

Norm McSwain gave us a much-needed bit of levity in our welcoming speech. Paraphrased, his speech went something like, "For all you instructors from around the country who have traveled here today, let me be the first to welcome you to New Orleans, a city without equal, a city whose food, culture and music makes her unique in all the world! And if you leave your hotel unescorted... you will probably be murdered."

Everyone laughed, and I was one of a lucky few to have Norm McSwain as our tour guide that night. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I knew of him as a giant in EMS and trauma care, and not just the gentleman in the turtleneck who shepherded us through the French Quarter.

Kelly Grayson
MEDIC Training Solutions

This calling requires your very best
I once asked Dr. McSwain what's the secret to being a great paramedic. He told me "Be the very best, If you're not going to be the very best you can be, find something else to be. This calling always requires your very best." 

Chris Cebollero
Senior Partner, Cebollero & Associates

Single-mindedness dedication
Everyday folks like Norm McSwain become extraordinary through their doggedness and determination to save lives who would, in a different generation, have been lost. In doing so, he is one of the few legends in our profession; I would say he belongs to the elite few that began modern EMS. It felt like a privilege to meet him twenty years ago; it remains one to me today.

Art Hsieh, MA, NREMT-P
Program Director, Paramedic Academy
Santa Rosa Junior College

Amazing and enduring legacy
Dr. McSwain did so much good for our world with his keen mind, skilled hands, and humble heart.  I first met him as a student of his in the 1980s at one of the first PHTLS instructor courses. He was so down to earth - a practical hands-on teacher with an unbridled enthusiasm for excellence in trauma care and education. What a great man. Dr. McSwain leaves an amazing and enduring legacy in all the training programs and lifesaving techniques he developed, refined, and taught to legions of EMS and other healthcare professionals around the world. 

Steve Wirth, Esq., EMT-P
Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, LLC

Thanks for believing in us
Dr. Norman McSwain, we all learned from your tireless dedication to the best possible care for the sick and injured, even in the face of extreme adversity. But thank you, in addition, for your support. You did so because you believed in us. We lost a mentor.

I will never forget reading Dr. McSwain’s emails sent to the worldwide Trauma-L listserve as the crippled Charity Hospital in New Orleans was battered by Katrina. His regular updates kept a chronicle of his will to continue. 

Dr. McSwain, your work is done. Thank you very much. May you rest in peace.

Gustavo E. Flores MD EMT-P 
Director, Emergency & Critical Care Trainings LLC

Greatness that changed the world
True greatness, it seems, exists in those who are unaware of its existence. Dr. McSwain changed the world; one idea and one patient at a time and never seemed to lose the humility that made his gift to the world of EMS so valuable. We have all benefitted from his contributions to prehospital care. The best we can do to honor his memory is to carry on his legacy of making this world a better, safer place.

David J. Givot, PLC
The Legal Guardian

A divine calling to serve others
I had the privilege of meeting Dr. McSwain only once. It was at EMS Expo 2012 in New Orleans.  I was attending the Military Relations Committee meeting when Dr. McSwain somewhat unexpectedly entered the room. His reputation had preceded him there and he immediately garnered the full attention of everyone. He sat down and listened intently to the proceedings.  Afterwards, I was impressed that he took the time to introduce himself to each of us. I was amazed how this man, at an age where most would allow their love of the profession to fade into the twilight, still had a fire that burned intensely. The word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, a divine calling to serve. Dr. McSwain was truly called to this profession. Now he has been called home, from the world of the living to the realm of legend. A hundred years from now, when the rest of us are forgotten, his legacy will live on in every trauma class held across the world. He will be one of the select few that will always be remembered by the profession.

Nicholas Miller MS, NRP 
Education Coordinator
National EMS Academy

Lasting legacy of better trauma care
Dr. McSwain had a lasting effect on EMS Trauma management around the world. His involvement in getting the PHTLS class off the ground and into regular use created better trauma care practitioners in EMS at both the BLS and ALS levels and positively affected outcomes for patients everywhere. He will be missed but his legacy lives on.

Jamie Davis, RN, NRP, BA
CFO, MedicCast Productions, LLC

Friend, great motivator
A friend for over 40 years. When Norm, his daughter Mary and I had dinner last January, little did I know it would be the last time I would see him. However, somehow we both felt having one last picture together was important. He was not just my friend, but my great motivator, to take what I had learned in the early days of truama surgery and translate it to Emergency Medicine. To Mary and the family you loss is alll of our loss. 



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