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Full throttle: Emergency physician on the IndyCar front lines

Deb Rusk, MD, on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Deb Rusk, MD, on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Some of the most important people at IndyCar races like the Indianapolis 500 are the ones you hope you never have to see: emergency medicine professionals. Since 2009, emergency medicine physician, Deb Rusk, MD, has traveled across the country as a part of an IndyCar on-track safety team. With race car drivers hitting speeds of up to 230 mph, Dr. Rusk is always ready to respond in seconds should disaster strike.

Deb Rusk, MD, with professional driver, Gail Pruess

Dr. Rusk with professional driver, Gail Pruess

“The medical response team I work with is composed of three safety trucks manned by paramedics and fire fighters and one command car,” said Dr. Rusk. “The command car is driven by a professional driver, who is retired from racing, and holds two physicians. If there’s an accident on the track, the race control center will announce a ‘yellow, yellow, yellow’ and we are ready to go in action. While we are treating a driver on the track, there are still cars going 80 mph or more near us on the track.”

A drive for emergency medicine

The work is intense but rewarding for Dr. Rusk, who completed training in 2007 to transition her medical specialty from internal medicine-pediatrics to emergency medicine. Changing specialties mid-career is a challenging undertaking, but Rusk thrives in high-pressure environments, something she gets her fill of on the medical response team. That, and an outlet for her geek out about IndyCars.

“I grew up in Indianapolis. End of story,” Dr. Rusk said. “From the time I was little, I don’t ever remember not being interested in the month of May or IndyCars. My parents would take us to qualifications and that sort of thing. In high school, qualifications was always one of our senior skip days. So, IndyCar has always been something I’m fascinated by and interested in. But it really wasn’t until my EM residency at IU School of Medicine that I learned about the on-track safety team and wanted to be a part of that.”

An appreciation for near-death experiences

In 2017, Dr. Rusk underwent a bilateral lung transplant. Because of her increased risk for infection after the transplant, she is now unable to care for patients in a clinical emergency department setting. Working on the medical response team gives Dr. Rusk an opportunity to still have a direct medical impact, although she hopes the IndyCar drivers never require her care. Having a serious illness puts things in perspective for Dr. Rusk and makes the stakes feel even higher for her on the side of the race track.

“When you think about it, these aren’t just car accidents,” said Dr. Rusk. “When IndyCar drivers hit the walls or another car it’s more like a plane accident. They’re moving very often at 200+ miles an hour. Our drivers pull more G-force in accidents than astronauts do when they’re going into space. Luckily, the majority of our drivers walk away from their accidents because of car technology and safety advancements. But when they don’t, we’re here to get them the care they need.”

Going the extra miles for driver safety

Typically, it’s serious work, but the safety team does everything in their power to ensure the safety of their drivers. Even if it means animal control.

“We’ve done things like chase squirrels or geese off the track,” laughed Dr. Rusk. “Because –  you know – geese can’t move fast enough to get out of the way of a car that’s moving 200+ mph. I’ve even had to pick up frogs off the track – frogs and birds get toasted by IndyCars. It’s always a little funny to me to see highly trained safety teams chase geese on the track.”

For her “day job,” Dr. Rusk now works as the assistant dean for career mentoring and residency director for the Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics Combined Residency Program at IU School of Medicine. A Hoosier through and through, Dr. Rusk completed her undergraduate training at Purdue and medical training at IU School of Medicine. She loves using her personal experiences and expertise to give back to her alma mater by helping medical students choose an optimal career path. Just don’t be surprised if you see her cheering on some of her favorite drivers on race day – including Pippa Mann and Stefan Wilson, who represent organ donation programs.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

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