Joseph Sakran: As a gunshot victim and a surgeon who witnesses the effects of gun violence, I am on a mission
I strongly believe this conversation has to be centered on our nation's health -- not race, not politics, not money, he writes
Editor’s Note: Joseph Sakran is a trauma surgeon and director of emergency general surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Follow him @JosephSakran. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
A high school football game: a scene common in many of our memories. But for one young man, in his senior year, it was different. After watching a football game from the stands on a Friday night, a fight broke out as he was standing nearby. The sounds of gunfire punctured the night, and an errant bullet punctured his throat. As he lay on the ground with his blood pooling beneath him, veering toward losing consciousness, he could vaguely hear people shouting and sirens blaring.
I am a trauma surgeon at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a city struggling with more than 200 homicides this year so far – on pace for the most annual murders in the city. But this is not a story about one of my patients. I was that 17-year-old with a hole in my throat and the fear of death in my mind. And it isn’t just Baltimore’s problem: over 30,000 people die from firearms annually. What are we going to do about it?
Every time I have to walk to the waiting room and speak with a family of a gunshot victim, I think of my own family and what must have been going through their minds at that time. By far the worst moment for me is when I see those faces of mothers and fathers anxiously waiting for an update on a loved one who has died. I approach them knowing the news I’m about to share with them will turn their world upside down. Often, I leave numb, with the image of their faces chiseled into my memory.
Today, I am on a mission to help others impacted by gun violence. As a former patient, and a surgeon who continually witnesses firsthand the effects of gun violence on victims and their families, I have a great deal of experience to draw from.
Earlier this month, I attended a hearing about gun violence at the Baltimore City Council. The hearing was controversial because many citizens felt the bill would not reduce gun violence and simply lend to unconstitutional policing. The room was packed. On the table was a proposal that would create one-year mandatory minimum jail sentence for anyone found to be in possession of an illegal gun, throughout the majority of the city.
Baltimore police commanders in white uniforms and suits, who have been working to curb the violence, sat on one side. Members of the public, including many activists fighting for fairness in a city beleaguered by a history of racial injustice, sat all around. A City Council realized the challenge that lay ahead that morning as they looked back at the scene of a divided room searching for answers.
The proposal comes after an era of legislators across the country repealing mandatory minimum sentences that many say unfairly filled our prisons with African-American men, often facing drug charges. At the same time, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis believes that a major source of the epidemic of violence in the city is the light sentencing of people who’ve been arrested previously for carrying illegal guns but have returned to Baltimore streets, and taken their illegal guns with them.
I was there neither to support nor to oppose the bill, but as a doctor, to discuss gun violence for what it is: the public health crisis that communities all across my great city and this nation face.
As the period for public testimony opened, City Councilman Eric Costello called me up to deliver my thoughts. It wasn’t my first foray into a political arena. During this last presidential election, I created “Doctors for Hillary,” a grass-roots organization of doctors and allied health professionals that backed the former secretary of state because she had made health issues – including gun violence – an integral part of her campaign platform.
I was surprised when, as I approached the podium, an uproar rang out. People were yelling. The podium right in front of me was overturned. A crowd began shouting, “No Justice No Peace.”
I hadn’t yet opened my mouth, and I was completely blindsided by how chaotic the situation quickly became. I heard people yelling about “this white Hopkins surgeon,” that he is “not one of our people.” My heart sank.
This reaction exemplifies what is wrong in our country today: We are not talking to each other. We’re allowing assumptions based simply on appearance to prevent real dialogue – the kind of dialogue that can solve problems. The kind of dialogue that, based on what I have seen as a trauma surgeon, I know can save lives.
How could they know based on my skin color that I am the son of immigrant parents? How could they know I bear the physical scars of bullets? How can we know anything about each other if we don’t give each other a chance? A chance to speak, a chance to be heard, a chance to learn, a chance to compromise – a chance to make ourselves and our communities better.
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I stood before the Baltimore City Council to be part of the conversation, and even though unfortunately, certain actions precluded this conversation, I won’t stop trying. As a surgeon, I strongly believe this conversation has to be centered on our nation’s health – not race, not politics, not money – simply health. At the end of the day, we all bleed red. I’m still here at the table ready to talk, and eager to listen. What about you?