Rush Physician on Gun Violence: ‘We Must Do Better’

By Beth Van Opstal, MD

On Monday, Nov. 19, my daughter’s eighth birthday, I was watching my children play at the school playground, when suddenly sirens began blaring all around. Staff ushered everyone into the school, stating there was a shooting nearby, and we were going on lockdown.

For a few chaotic minutes, I lost my son in the crowd. All of us at the school were safe, but we soon learned of the tragic shooting at Mercy Hospital just a few blocks away. On this day, the innocent lives of Dr. Tamara O’Neal, an emergency medicine physician, Dayna Less, a pharmacist, and Officer Samuel Jimenez were victims of gun violence. The shooter also died.

Chicago and the entire nation grieve these losses. My husband knew Officer Jimenez from his time working as a security guard at Skokie Hospital. He tells me what an honorable and good man he was. Many of our Rush family knew the other victims personally. And while these deaths are soul wrenching, they are all too familiar. As of Nov. 24, the Chicago Tribune reports there have been 518 homicides and at least 2,710 people shot in Chicago in 2018. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 14,000 of the 19,000 who died from homicides in 2017 were from firearm-related deaths. Study after study shows how dramatically higher our rate of death from gun violence is compared to other developed countries. Gun violence is undoubtedly a public health crisis.

#thisisourlane

On Nov. 7, the National Rifle Association caught media attention with a tweet saying “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.” The tweet came in response to medical organizations, such as the American College of Physicians, who have dedicated articles in research journals to studying gun violence. The response to the tweet from physicians has been a resounding disagreement, often with #thisisourlane on social media.

Tragically, the medical community is far too intimate with gun violence. Most directly, some of our own lives have been threatened or tragically ended by gun violence. A few years ago, my husband, an emergency medicine physician at a nearby hospital, was caring for an intoxicated patient who pulled a gun and pointed it at him and other ER staff. He and other staff fled, hiding in corners as bullets flew through walls. Police officers had shot and killed the man. The health care team then tried in vain to resuscitate the man.

This night still haunts my husband. Could he have died? Could he have done something different to prevent the man from pulling the gun? He relives the moments that led to the escalation of the patient pulling the gun, wishing he could have prevented it. One colleague quit medicine altogether. I am sure the family of the patient who died still grieves their loss infinitely more than any. Other health care workers have been victims of gun violence from patients. 

‘Wails of crying mothers’

While many of us in the medical field may not have all personally been threatened by gun violence, the vast majority have cared for patients or their family members who suffer from gun violence. I have held the hands of multiple patients or family members who died from guns. The sounds of wails of crying mothers or images of fathers hitting walls with bloody fists in deep mourning will never leave my memories, my soul. It’s not just physicians who own the lane of speaking up against gun violence. A few weeks ago in the pediatrics unit, the mother of a hospitalized baby was in her son’s hospital room when she received the news that her brother was shot and killed. An amazing pediatric nurse held her and tried to comfort her as she screamed in anguish and shock. The hospital administrator then showed incredible compassion by accompanying the patient’s mother to the hospital to see her brother’s dead body.

The vast majority of health care workers have cared for victims of gun violence and their families, even if not in a trauma setting. Physical and occupational therapists encourage and instruct paraplegics who survive shootings. Social workers not only comfort in the trauma bay, they advocate for patients in the years of struggling afterwards. Environmental services workers clean the bloody tragedy from trauma bay floors, or spend extra time talking to patients suffering chronic consequences of violence.

We all have powerful stories to tell. The stories and circumstances may differ, but the gun is consistent. At Rush even in the last few years, we have suffered the loss of our own Rush family to violent gun deaths, including victims to domestic violence. Some of us live in communities where we don’t feel safe allowing our children to play outside or walk to school.

‘United in advocacy’

I am pained that my daughter will remember her eighth birthday as the day her school went on lockdown; but my pain pales to the true anguish so many mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters suffer from the tragic loss of life from guns. We must do better. First, however, we need to take care of ourselves. Doctor, (insert every other health care worker), heal thyself. After my husband witnessed the tragic death in his ER, he struggled for months. He sought help from our church, mentors, and other professional support. At Rush, we have wonderful support through the Employee Assistance Program. We shouldn’t feel stigma at seeking the help we need.

Then, we need to clog up the lanes of voices speaking out and acting against gun violence. Let’s create a traffic jam of health care workers, united in advocacy. Advocate in your professional organizations for gun control. Speak up, and elevate the voices of others — including our patients and their families. There are so many other ways to help, and not just directly for gun control, as gun violence is rooted in complex issues. Address the inequities in this tale of two cities we live in. Life expectancy can drop by more than 10 years in just a few stops on the El. Fight for equity in schools, more job opportunities in the South and West sides of the city, improved access to health care, and whichever other way your passion draws you. Advocate and provide help for organization against domestic violence. Make educated votes — not just for national officials, but local leaders. Do you know who your alderman or state officials are, and how often do you call them? Donate your money, your time to organizations that directly or indirectly combat gun violence. Rush is doing amazing work in surrounding neighborhoods; we all need to support this work. 

Let us not grow weary in doing good, though the forces seem at times insurmountable. May our labor be a tribute to Dr. Tamara O’Neal, Dayna Less, Samuel Jimenez, and the many others, loved ones and patients, who have lost their lives senselessly to gun violence.

Beth Van Opstal, MD, is a hospitalist who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics at Rush University Medical Center.

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