FARGO-The Sanford Medical Center has won designation as a top-level trauma center, becoming the first to earn the recognition in caring for the most severely injured patients for a broad region in the upper Midwest.

Sanford has cleared its final hurdle to be verified as a Level I Adult Trauma Center, a designation awarded by the American College of Surgeons. The achievement makes Fargo the only city with a Level I Adult Trauma Center between Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver and Omaha, according to Sanford.

The designation is the culmination of 10 years of planning and preparation, Sanford administrators said in announcing the development Thursday, Aug. 16.

"This is a day we've been planning for and hoping for," said Nate White, president of Sanford Medical Center and Sanford's chief operating officer. "It's just such a thrill."

He called the designation "the first of its kind for Sanford, the first of its kind for Fargo and the first of its kind for North Dakota and this region."

Dr. Steven Briggs, a trauma surgeon and the center's trauma medical director, said top-level trauma centers are usually services available in major metropolitan areas.

"I think it should be assuring to the citizens of North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota," he said. "If you're severely injured, we have the resources to take care of you."

Having a top-level trauma center in the area is important, since promptly treating people with serious injuries or illnesses helps lead to a better prognosis for patients.

"Often time is one of the key determinants in good outcomes vs. not good outcomes," Briggs said. Studies have shown that top-level trauma centers save lives, provided the patient is not too far away, he said.

"Patients can stay in their hometown hospitals until they need care that's not available locally, and when that happens they can come to Fargo vs. Minneapolis or Denver," White said. "It's a huge step forward in keeping families close to home."

Although Sanford Medical Center can stabilize burn patients, patients with severe burns still must be sent to a burn center, typically in the Twin Cities.

Sanford is considering the possibility of adding a burn center in the future, but would have to have the patient volume to support the service, and would have to be able to provide the specialized staffing and necessary resources, White said.

To be qualified as a top-level trauma center, Sanford must provide 24-hour medical coverage by general surgeons and prompt availability to specialties such as orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery, cardiac surgery, thoracic surgery, hand surgery, anesthesiology, emergency medicine, radiology, plastic surgery, oral and maxillofacial, pediatric, interventional radiology and critical care, among other services.

A top-level trauma center also plays an important role through research and prevention through education. One trauma research initiative at Sanford involves a study of patients with rib fractures, a common injury, and working with community paramedics in a 60-mile radius to prevent return visits to the hospital.

Sanford Medical Center's Children's Hospital in Fargo has been verified as a Level II Pediatric Trauma Center since 2014.

Recently, Sanford announced a 10-year plan that calls for adding a new heart center near the Sanford Medical Center was well as a bone marrow transplant program.