At 30, Norman native staying close to home as an E.R. physician

By Carol Cole

Transcript Staff Writer

Norman Regional Hospital emergency room physician Dr. Matt Bonner gets some interesting questions from patients, and not always about the condition that brought them there.

"Does your mom know you're skipping school and pretending to be a doctor," relates Bonner, a Norman High class of '94 graduate describing some of the good-natured ribbing he gets from people who recognize him from earlier days. "That will hopefully fade away as I get gray hair."

Bonner, the son of Steve and Mary Bonner of Norman, received a bachelor's degree in letters from the University of Oklahoma and his medical degree from the OU Health Sciences Center.

But then it was off to the big city -- Pittsburgh -- where he would do his emergency medicine residency, a relatively new specialty that began in the early 1970s.

The 30-year-old Bonner returned to Norman, joining the Norman Regional Hospital emergency room staff about a year ago, choosing to be here over several other options.

"I loved growing up here. I love going to Albertson's and seeing three people that I know," he says. "And that just didn't exist in Pittsburgh and I think that Norman is a great place to raise kids."

Bonner says what he likes about being an emergency room physician is the unpredictability.

"You never know what you are going to do every day when you go to work," he says, helping people when they are going through what is probably one of their toughest times -- physically, emotionally and mentally. "It's really a great place to work."

Another enjoyable thing about his job is the teamwork.

"The nurses and the doctors and the staff -- everybody really works together for the same goal, which is to get people taken care of," he says.

Bonner describes Norman Regional as a "cutting edge" community hospital. He serves on the hospital's critical care committee.

"(Norman Regional is) just rolling out the new treatment protocol for treating patients who are critically ill based on national standards," Bonner says. The "Surviving Septis" campaign is early, goal-directed therapy for severe sepsis and septic shock.

Experiences in Pittsburgh helped him be a better emergency room physician.

The biggest emergency event he's worked since becoming an emergency physician was in Pittsburgh, when the city's historic, 1875-built Ebenezer Baptist Church burned. The five-alarm fire took the lives of two experienced firefighters at the scene when the church's bell tower collapsed without warning on several dozen firefighters. Twenty-nine firefighters were injured in the blaze, according to Associated Press reports.

In Pittsburgh, resident physicians frequently go on calls with paramedic teams, often substituting for the flight nurse on helicopters.

"... Which helps me appreciate where paramedics are coming from when they bring patients into the emergency room. What they went through to get them here," he says. "It was kind of emergency medicine taken out on the streets."

They worked the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Panthers games, not so different from University of Oklahoma football games in Bonner's home town.

He's found the Norman Regional staff to be "very family-oriented, very goal-oriented," from the floors to consultants to specialists to daily practice doctors.

"Everybody is very professional and excellent," Bonner says. "I find it to be on par with a major academic center. It's really great. And the staff is super supportive."

Some hospitals haven't yet embraced emergency medicine as a specialty, as Norman Regional has.

"If we make the emergency department excellent, then it all flows to the whole hospital, kind of a ripple effect," Bonner says. "Some hospitals in Pittsburgh weren't totally committed to that, but the ones that were, you could tell a huge difference both in patient care and staff satisfaction."

His wife Emily, a former school teacher, is from Pennsylvania. They have been renovating a Craftsman/Bungalow house in the Chautauqua Historic District. In coming years, it will be an easy walk to McKinley Elementary School for their kids -- two boys, 4 and 2, and eventually the newest Bonner, a little girl just over a week old.

"I'm definitely a husband and father first, then a doctor. That's my goal," he says.

Bonner's face lights up when he talks about his wife, who is now a full-time mom.

"She's great. She's awesome," he says. "She's super tough. She's a marathon runner, tough cookie. I only run the last six (miles) with her to help her cross the finish line."

His second love is English.

"I knew that I'd be doing science for the rest of my life so I just did the required sciences I needed and did something else that I loved, which was reading and writing and literature, history and great books," Bonner says.

He hopes his emergency medicine specialty will help him avoid burnout, a classic problem common with physicians in the ER. Not enough time has passed since the specialty was created to know if if the new strategy will work for emergency physicians.

In the meantime, Bonner brings his considerable energy to the night shift at Norman Regional.

"I hope that when people come to the emergency room ... we take good care of them and they feel like I listen to them and care for them," he says. "And that's the whole reason that I do this."

Carol Cole 366-3538 ccole@normantranscript.com

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