What’s in a name? For “Trauma” Tommy Willette, it’s life. Willette is a trauma nurse at the Regional One Health Elvis Presley Trauma Center. His role isn’t easy to define, although multitasker who thinks outside the box while working as part of a well-oiled, big team is a good place to start.
Willette lives and breathes trauma; he’s known as Trauma Tommy, after all. He says every flight crew in a 200-mile radius of Memphis knows him. He often retrieves patients flown in from around the region.
But it was the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that brought Willette to Regional One Health. His great-niece weighed 1 pound 6 ounces when she was born at Regional One Health. Today, she has no health problems and is about to graduate from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
“She spent two months in the ICU on a ventilator,” Willette said. “I thought if this place can do that I want to work here. I’ve worked in every department of this hospital.”
Willette worked in a small hospital for five years where he gained a variety of trauma experience before continuing his career as a traveling nurse. He wanted a place where he could put all his trauma experience to work, and when he saw how Regional One Health treated his great-niece, he knew that’s where he wanted to continue his nursing career.
Willette cherishes the relationships he’s built over his 18 years at Regional One Health. It’s a family to him, something that was crystal clear when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and given nine months to live.
On Oct. 27, 2013, Willette was on the hospital roof retrieving a patient off a helicopter. He suddenly doubled over in pain. After getting the patient to a room, he told trauma surgeon Dr. George Maish III, MD, FACS, who immediately ordered a scan. Less than two weeks later, Dr. Maish removed Willette’s colon.
That first day in recovery Willette said he had 564 visitors, all but three of whom were co-workers. Needless to say, staff had to stop visitation.
“This is why I like being here. That’s the kind of place we work,” he said. “We’re a big family. It has to be that way because it’s a chaotic environment and you have to work cohesively.”
The day Willette received his nine-month prognosis, he drove to his local funeral home and made the arrangements for his service, picking out the casket and the songs he wanted played. A week later he started an experimental drug and followed with a couple rounds of chemotherapy. He returned in late 2014 for more chemo and was told he was finished. Willette thought his nine-month prognosis had finally come true.
But Willette’s cancer was in remission.
“I was ready to come back to work that day,” he said, before adding the doctor forced him to wait three months. “I came back Jan. 27, 2015. My first day back to work I got to pick up a helicopter off the roof and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m back.’”
To be sure, Willette isn’t excited to see trauma patients. But he’s thrilled that it’s his job to help bring patients back from the brink. He takes his role in the trauma golden hour – the critical first hour after traumatic injury to save a patient – seriously.
It probably makes sense that Willette thrives in the fast pace of the Regional One Health Elvis Presley Trauma Center. He’s a child of a Vietnam War veteran, and served in the U.S. Marines as a weapons specialist guarding nuclear weapons. After his military service, he worked on offshore oil rigs in Louisiana.
He later moved to Dyersburg, Tennessee, and worked as a mechanic. A nurse friend said he should go to EMT school. He fell in love with it and worked as an EMT while attending nursing school.
Oh, and when not living his role as Trauma Tommy, Willette works his Northwest Tennessee farm to relax.
He looks the part of former Marine, but Willette’s compassionate heart makes him the embodiment of what he believes it takes for nurses to succeed at Regional One Health.
“’Your Life. Our Passion,’ that’s not a catch phrase. You have to incorporate it into your heart and your mind,” he said. “You have to take ownership. That’s what sets us apart. I’m not one of these people who walks in and chit chats for five minutes with a patient. I get to know them. I tell new nurses to treat the patient but you also have to treat the family. They’re somewhere they don’t want to be. I treat everyone like they’re my family.”