This Is Not By Chance Alone

First Fridays in downtown Oakland is a monthly event that fills the streets with food and music and dance, brilliant colors, and enticing smells. Full of life. This past Friday, two groups of teenagers reportedly began an argument in the middle of the event.  Shortly, at least one person pulled out a gun and shot dead an 18-year-old boy in the middle of the street fair. His name was Kiante Campbell. Three other people were also shot and wounded: a teenaged friend of Kiante’s, and two young women in their twenties who were not involved in the argument and were simply out to enjoy the art and music. Hit by stray bullets, they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. But the truth is with so many guns in our city and our country, any place could be the wrong place, any time could be the wrong time. The high prevalence of guns takes heated moments of dispute and turns them into lifetimes of irreversible loss and death.

As a resident at Highland Hospital I see that 18-year-old boy nearly every day. Sometimes he dies immediately, sometimes he just barely survives. Recently, we cared for a young man shot in the head and in the pelvis. He lived to lay in the intensive care unit (ICU), intubated, sedated, with a cooling blanket laid over him to try to slow down his life processes and keep what was left of his brain functioning. The last time I saw him, his mother sat by his right side, holding his hand, bent over asleep on his cold body from sitting vigil all night. His little sister and grandmother sat on chairs to his left, drawing Get Well cards that they hung over the head of his bed. But he will not get well, and his future will be lost to the gun shot to his head. This family will forever feel his loss, which sadly is not their first from gun violence. On either side of his bed in the ICU lay other gun shot wound victims. And on the floors above him lay many more, some who have been convalescing for months to even years- with their abdomens or limbs open, awaiting second, third, tenth operations to try to repair what a gun shot did in seconds. These men and women have been changed from young, independent, healthy people to hospital patients, some who will never leave, others now permanently disabled for the rest of their lives.

A single father in his twenties was walking his four-year-old daughter to school, only blocks from our hospital. Moments after dropping her off, a car pulled up and shot at several people, including him. The bullets shattered both his right calf and his left foot. In the trauma bay he was torn apart with pain and shock, crying loudly “I do nothing wrong. I am a single father, I wake up every day to feed and clothe my four year old girl, take her to school, and then work all day and often nights to feed her. I don’t do drugs, I am not in a gang, I don’t do nothing. This just ain’t fair. I am all she has.” This man may lose his right leg from the injury. Wrong time? Wrong place? In a country as developed and resourced as ours, we cannot allow walking your daughter to school to be so dangerously wrong.

On one night shift when I was working in the emergency department (ED), there was a fight close to the hospital that ended in a gun battle. Within 30 minutes, we had 6 shooting victims. Two of them were young men, cousins. The older of the two was shot in the face, his lips and cheek torn off. He was agitated and fearful of having been shot, but refused any care until he knew that his younger cousin, who had been shot in the back, was alive and by his side. That night, during my ten hour shift, we cared for eleven people in the ED for their gun shot wounds. Friday night in Oakland. Wrong time?

From time to time, people have weapons on them when they come into our ED. Recently a man who was very sick pulled out a gun from his bag to stash it in a cabinet after being taken to a bed to be cared for. Should we be wary of all patients who enter our doors? Should we have to do a weapons search on everyone before we provide immediate and emergent medical care to them? In a society where so many people carry concealed weapons, the sad truth is this is something we have to consider. The hospital is now implementing a system where each patient will be screened for a gun before receiving care.  In the wealthiest country, a nation that is supposed to be an international leader for human rights, even our hospitals are not safe from gun violence. Wrong place?

A woman in her twenties, shot in the chest. She was taken straight to the operating room, and made it out alive to be taken to the ICU, where she found out she was 8 weeks pregnant.

A girl in her teens, who was beaten and raped at gunpoint. Another teenaged girl abducted by a man with a gun narrowly escaped the same fate by jumping out of the back seat of the car he took her into, which it was going 60 mph on the freeway. A man in his sixties robbed and shot while unpacking groceries from the trunk of his car.

Gun shot wound to the leg. Gun shot wound to the head. Gun shot wound to the heart.

These are just a few of the stories of people who I have cared for at Highland Hospital. And I am only an intern. These stories were not collected over years of experience, but over just seven months.

On January 23rd I was working on the orthopedic surgery service (the bone doctors). My attending turned to me and said “I heard a very sad statistic this morning- so far this year 23 people have been injured or died from gun violence in Oakland. That is one every single day.” Every Single Day.  Is every single day the wrong time? 

 The time is now. Gun violence is real, it is pervasive, and its consequences are grave. We as a city and as a country need gun control now. Not in ten years when 3,650 more people in Oakland have had their lives, their families' and communities' lives, forever changed by gun violence. Not after several more mass shootings, not after many more children die. This is the RIGHT time. The United States has more firearms per person than any other country in the world[1]. Our children are 12 times more likely to be killed by firearms than other industrialized countries[2]. This is the RIGHT place. The time is now.

[1] Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, September 2007. Accessed February 5, 2013. 

[2] Rates of Homicide, Suicide, and Firearm-Related Death Among Children -- 26 Industrialized Countries, Center for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 1997