Dr. David McElmeel knows the damage a bullet can cause to the human body.
“It typically goes through the soft tissue and takes the path of least resistance,” he says, noting that the “energy of the bullet” can also damage other tissue around the entry point.
McElmeel has been operating on bullet wounds in people for the past 12 years in the trauma unit at Advocate Christ Medical Center near Chicago’s South Side.
“When it gets really busy, it’s almost like being like a short order cook,” he says. “It’s a lot of time management."
Last year, the unit at Christ handled about 3500 patients. That number includes car accident victims and other trauma cases, but the majority of the patients are gunshot victims.
“They seem to be getting younger and younger every year,” says McElmeel, who before coming to Chicago worked in Las Vegas. “There are so many young people here with access to guns.”
McElmeel says he never dreamed he’d be a trauma surgeon during medical school, but now he's hooked.
“I have a desire to help people, and it’s a challenge,” he says.
The human factor of the equation, however, is pushed aside while trying to save a patient’s life because “it’s separation you need during the case.” That separation is more difficult when the patient is a child.
“It's different when it’s a child. You know there’s a lot of potential when it’s a child, and it’s usually not their own doing,” McElmeel says.
More than 90% of the patients who arrive at the trauma unit with a pulse are kept alive, but McElmeel can’t forget the ones that don’t make it.
“There’s disappointment obviously that you failed in whatever the challenges were in front of you to save the patient,” says McElmeel.
“The human part of it is when you have to tell the family. That’s where it really hits home.”