How firearm trauma impacts hospital staff

For Black History Month, we’re covering issues in health equity and ways that the medical field is turning inwards to address them. Up next: firearm violence.

Do you know a clinician taking the lead on firearm violence prevention or another critical health equity issue? In June, the Lown Institute will be presenting the Bernard Lown Award for Social Responsibility (BLASR) to a young clinician dedicated to social justice, environmentalism, global peace, or other notable humanitarian efforts. Nominations will close March 1 so nominate an inspiring clinician today!

Black Americans face a disproportionate amount of gun violence

According to Everytown, a nonprofit advocating for gun control, Black Americans are disproportionately subjected to gun violence. The statistics are astounding: with ten times the gun homicides as compared to white Americans, eighteen times the gun injuries, and three times the fatal police shootings, Black Americans face a horrific threat of gun violence. 

Apart from the obvious trauma inflicted by guns, firearm violence deteriorates the wellbeing of entire communities. The constant threat compounds an individual’s cumulative stress load, leading to chronic health conditions even if one isn’t directly victimized by gun violence. The problem intensifies in historically underfunded cities, correlating with deep inequities in resources, support, and economic instability

It gets even trickier when considering mental health – over half of suicides in the United States involved a gun, and the vast majority who attempt suicide with a gun are successful in their attempt. Suicide rates, specifically amongst young Black men, are on the rise, leading some experts to posit that higher rates of gun ownership are connected to higher rates of self-inflicted gun violence.

Hospital staff get traumatized too

It can feel like we are in a never-ending cycle of firearm trauma. From Tyre Nichols to the six mass shootings in California just last month, it can feel endless. The damage ranges from mass shootings to domestic violence to self-harm to police brutality, and it doesn’t just impact victims and their families. Hospital staff are subjected to devastating cases time and time again, especially staff who work in emergency departments in metro areas. 

Seeing so many cases of needless gun violence takes a toll. Depression, PTSD, and anxiety can all emerge from repeatedly treating victims and having hard conversations with their families. Quickly moving on to the next patient feels empty of empathy yet is expected. Hospital staff are struggling more than ever and repeated instances of gun violence can be triggering – especially for Black staff who feel the extra burden of racialized gun and police violence.  Black hospital workers may feel the impacts even deeper when working with Black victims. It’s traumatizing to try and save a gun or police violence victim with the knowledge that you personally belong to the group being targeted.

Just ask our Board member Dr. Selwyn O. Rogers, Jr., M.D., M.P.H., a surgeon, public health expert, and founding director of  the University of Chicago Trauma Center. In an article published in NEJM last month, Dr. Rogers describes the trauma he carries from treating victims of gun violence day after day.

In reality, I harbor and carry the burden of suffering within me. The piercing screams, the severed limbs, the brain matter exuding from the temporal lobes haunt me. Many evenings on the drive home, I know that my inner battery is spent, that I have no more strength to shoulder the hurt. I have nothing left to give. Sometimes when I get home, I cry like a baby on my wife’s shoulder. My wife, my three sons, my friends, and my faith — a belief in things not seen — recharge me.”

From Grief to Hope

While the nation continues to cycle through gun violence-related grief, healthcare workers are still standing up for their patients and communities. People in healthcare can leverage their unique knowledge and experience to advocate for gun control and police reform as they continue to heal victims. In recent years, clinicians have been stepping up and speaking out about firearm violence, declaring “This is our lane.” Collective power, especially from a highly trained and vital workforce like that of healthcare, is the way forward

Just as recovery after violence provides hope in the ER, recovery from our social conditions is possible and can provide hope for a better future. As Dr. Rogers wrote in his NEJM piece, “Despite the uncountable victims, the howls of pain, the repeated sadness, such moments give me hope — hope that if such a patient can recover and find joy and communion, perhaps someday our society can too.”

Do you know a clinician leading the way in preventing firearm violence? Nominate them for a BLASR!