In 1969, 18 forward-thinking doctors at what is now Christiana Care Health System founded the private Doctors for Emergency Service (DFES).
Up until that time, doctors and residents took turns staffing the emergency room regardless of their specialty. As more people in crisis turned to the hospital and technology became specialized, these doctors recognized that patients needed trained care in a crisis.
Led by surgeon Ben Corballis, M.D., DFES initially provided emergency care to patients in northern Delaware and quickly evolved. In its 50 years, DFES led emergency care and training for the entire state. The group was pivotal in establishing Delaware’s statewide 911 and emergency medical service systems and, later, helped develop the trauma system.
DFES, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary at Longwood Gardens, now has 70 physicians and 35 physician assistants handling 195,000 visits annually at Christiana Care’s emergency departments in Wilmington Hospital and Christiana Hospital and Christiana Care’s free-standing Middletown Emergency Department.
“We’ve always seen ourselves as partners in the care of the community with Christiana Care,” said Leonard Nitowksi, M.D., president of DFES from 1999 to 2017, who did his residency with Christiana Care.
From the start, the partnership put Christiana Care ahead of the curve in national leadership in emergency medicine. In 1970, Delaware was only the third state to establish a chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians. In 1974, emergency medicine became an independent department at Christiana Care, decades ahead of many health systems.
Through the decades, DFES lobbied the State of Delaware for initiatives that have become the standard in emergency care, including hiring career paramedics and adopting 911 as the one-stop number for police, fire and emergency medical assistance.
A leader in emergency medicine training, DFES started Christiana Care’s residency program in the field. Today, this highly coveted residency program includes more than 61 residents (selected from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants annually), and DFES has 16 physicians on Christiana Care’s academic teaching faculty.
“It’s one of the largest emergency medicine training programs in the country,” said Thomas Sweeney, M.D., a past vice chair for the department. “It’s a key area. Our work goes far beyond the three emergency rooms.”
Christiana Care’s award-winning Forensic Nurse Examiner program, which started in 1996, also has roots with DFES. The team helps more than 2,000 victims of violent crime each year in Christiana Care’s emergency rooms.
“I’m truly proud of the citizenship of DFES,” said John Powell, M.D., chair of Emergency Medicine at Christiana Care and vice president of DFES. “As we serve together, our patients feel that we care about them even as we’re caring for their medical needs.”
Over the years, DFES has contributed to Christiana Care philanthropic campaigns that support care even beyond the Emergency Department. Most recently, DFES contributed to the construction of the Center for Women & Children’s Health, opening at Christiana Hospital in 2020.
“We have a history of solid partnership with Christiana Care over the years,” said Dr. Nitowski. “It is simply the right thing to do.”