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Inside Charlotte’s top trauma unit: Young victims, lives shattered by guns
Charlotte Observer - 4/11/2022
Few see the devastating result of Charlotte’s increasing gun violence more than the people who work on the 11th floor of Carolinas Medical Center.
Inside the operating room of the region’s only Level 1 trauma center, doctors, nurses, surgeons and specialists stand between life and death for patients with the worst injuries.
Treatment starts with a call from medics in the ambulance and could end with close to 80 professionals working the patient’s case over days or months.
Speaking with the Observer recently, Atrium Health medical director for trauma services Dr. David Jacobs said every person they see will get the best from health care workers at the hospital center — but it does hit hard emotionally when that patient is a child or teenager.
When there’s gunfire in Charlotte, these are frequently the victims — and they often end up here.
In the past month in Charlotte, shooting victims have included four kids under the age of 16 who landed in Atrium Health’s operating room — one of them died.
One is a 10-year-old girl named Cherish who sustained life-altering injuries and remains in critical condition. She was shot randomly on March 26 in a car wash parking lot.
Another was a 14-year-old boy named Kyrin, a student at Randolph Middle. He was shot and killed on March 15 in a shooting that also left a 13-year-old boy injured.
A day earlier, a 15-year-old Garinger High student was shot while walking to school. She survived.
Some shooting victims with grave injuries survive because they get medical help, including surgery, incredibly fast.
Atrium serves patients from an entire region at its trauma center and this year they’ve already had 29 children or teens there with gunshot wounds. Officials say while that number is disturbingly high, it’s also not accounting for patients who die before arriving or are treated in a lower level unit after being shot.
The unit has seen an upsurge recently in gun violence. Jacobs said a lot of the intentional gun violence he is seeing at the hospital is the result of interpersonal conflict and it is predominantly impacting young, African American men.
“I’ve had way, way, way too many conversations with mothers, particularly mothers, telling them that their son will not be coming home, that their son will never walk again,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs has three sons of his own and a lot of things run through his mind when he operates on a child. He focuses on the injuries, he said and how he can provide them with the best care possible. But he also puts himself in the shoes of the patient’s family, he said.
Jacobs has been with Atrium for 27 years. In the course of his career he said firepower has increased substantially with the availability of automatic weapons, making the injuries his patients sustain much more serious than they would have been in years prior.
Another part of Jacobs is also trying to grapple with figuring out how the child in front of him got to this point in their life, he said.
“And how could this scenario have been changed?” Jacobs said. “Where have we as a community — where we as a society failed — ... this kid, failed this community to the point where it came to his being shot?”
While crime in Charlotte has remained relatively flat in 2022, guns in the hands of youth have been on the rise, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and police agencies nationwide.
Chief Johnny Jennings in his end of year report for 2021, shared how the department will be focusing on diversion programs as CMPD works to prevent youth gun violence. He said whether it is through these programs, or through parenting education, and keeping firearms out of the hands of kids is key to preventing the violence.
At least 25 guns have been found on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools campuses this academic year. And so far this year, three teens have been killed due to gun violence.
The district has ordered clear backpacks, and prepared to install body scanners in some high schools to screen for weapons as part of several security measures introduced this year.
Gun public health crisis
Gun violence is a disease, Jacobs said. And like other diseases it can be prevented, not just treated.
Atrium launched a Violence Intervention Program in January targeting young people ages 15 to 25.
Brittney Brown, the program’s coordinator, said when someone comes in with a gunshot wound, or another injury that is the result of violence, they will immediately be paired with someone from the program who refers them to other community resources.
At Atrium, more than half of the patients with gunshot injuries have self-inflicted wounds, with the overwhelming majority of others being victims of violent shootings.
In her work, Brown said most of what she sees is interpersonal conflict rather than random violence.
Brown and Jacobs hope that by connecting patients to counseling and community resources through the intervention program, they can learn skills that allow them to address conflict without resorting to guns.
Jacobs said the recidivism rate for patients becoming a victim of violence again is 25% within Atrium’s network. Often these repeat victims have lethal injuries and won’t return to the hospital again, he said.
Violence prevention programs
Atrium is working in tandem with Mecklenburg County’s Office of Violence Prevention on their violence intervention program.
In 2020, Mecklenburg created the office due to a rise in homicides and gun related assaults. It is the first office of violence prevention in the state and its goal is to use a public health approach to reduce gun violence, according to Tracey Campbell the office’s senior health manager.
Stacey Butler, justice and trauma partnerships coordinator for Mecklenburg County Public Health, said the county is seeing similar numbers on violent crimes as it has for the past several years, but this doesn’t mean that things are getting better and one trend is particularly concerning: The number of children witnessing gun violence or serious assaults.
Echoing Butler’s concerns, Campbell said children who are exposed to violence are much more likely to become perpetrators, or victims of violence in the future.
“And so we really have to make sure that we’re addressing those traumas that our young people are experiencing in various ways,” Campbell said.
However, kids still fall through the gaps in the current system and miss out on valuable resources, Campbell said. The goal of their violence prevention office, and their partnership with community programs like Atrium’s is to stop these gaps from existing.
Jacobs said Atrium’s program is just a small part of the county’s efforts to prevent violence, and there is a need to develop a comprehensive plan so that no one falls through the cracks.
Violence is preventable, and it is everybody’s problem, Jacobs said.
“There are things that every single individual can do, whether it’s mentoring, whether it’s getting involved in your local school system, there’s a lot of things that we don’t traditionally think of as being violence intervention programs, but [that] address the social determinants of health, that contribute to violence,” Jacobs said.
“We would just encourage everybody to look around, look in the mirror, and ask themselves what they can do, to try and stem the tide of violence, where they live, where they work, where their kids go to school.”
On April 29 from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Atrium will be hosting the 16th annual Youth Violence Prevention Conference. This year’s topic is Kids, Conflict, & Guns: Deadly Consequences. The cost to attend is $15 and those who wish to participate can register online.
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