New Orleans physicians treating more children with gun shot wounds in recent years

“They’re actually saying things like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to live to be 21.’”
Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 12:59 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - At University Medical Center and Children’s Hospital, doctors say the number of children coming to the trauma centers with gunshot wounds has increased dramatically in recent years.

“I think it’s quite jarring to see these small children coming in with what we think of as big kid or big people problems. And there is just this disconnect that’s incredibly emotional for everyone who sees it,” said Dr. Anna McFarlin, an emergency physician at Children’s and UMC.

She said kids who come in with gunshot wounds range in age from zero to 15.

“It is heartbreaking,” she said. “To be the person to tell a family that their kid died and we can’t do anything to fix it and we can’t do anything to help.”

Especially when the patient is an infant or a toddler.

“It’s incredibly hard. But also our teenagers are still someone’s baby. They’re going to be someone’s baby forever.”

And tragically—the mortality rate is also rising.

The numbers at UMC alone rose from 26 shooting victims under the age of 16 in 2017, to 69 in 2021—that’s according to data from UMC’s trauma center.

“We’re seeing sort of this snowball effect of increasing violence in the city,” said Dr. McFarlin. “It is still children. It is still mass violence, just on a chronic level as opposed to a one event. So it’s still incredibly traumatic. As much as you can, you try to leave it at work.”

She said it’s easier said than done. For others, it’s what ignites their passion to help others in times of great need.

“I get that question a lot, like, ‘oh is it hard for you to do this every day?’ And actually, I don’t think it is,” said Dr. Erin Reuther, clinical psychologist at Ochsner Children’s Hospital. “If I can help a family get through a difficult situation and make this very difficult part of their life a little bit easier for them, it’s actually… it’s a privilege to be able to do that.”

Dr. Reuther said shootings can be triggering for younger patients—whether they have witnessed the crime, or become the victim.

“One thing that we’ll do is we will talk with our colleagues about it. We’ll have debriefing groups or consultation groups within the medical and hospital community. We will have conversations with each other about really preparing each other for these questions that our patients and our clients are going to bring to us, and how we’re going to help through that,” she said.

“And that helps us with it too.”

She said workplace support provides a level of validation when navigating trauma together. But in cities like New Orleans where there is ongoing violence, it makes the job of first responders—a delicate one.

“One of the challenging things about having chronic community violence is that people feel unsafe for long periods of time and many of the children we talk to in New Orleans are afraid to go to school, afraid to leave their home because of all the community violence that they’ve witnessed,” said Dr. Julie Kaplow, executive director of the trauma and grief center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans.

Dr. Kaplow has experience with mass shooting response.

In 2018, she provided trauma care in Santa Fe, Texas, following the Santa Fe High School shooting where a teenager allegedly used a shotgun and revolver to kill 10 people and wounded 10 others.

Following events like this, she said it’s important to help kids feel safe.

“To some degree, it can feel like a one-time incident versus children who are growing up in environments where gun violence is the norm; where they are constantly on high alert; where they’re actually saying things like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to live to be 21.’”

It’s something she said she hears all the time from her patients. She hopes she can help them envision a future.

Over the last 12 months (ending October 2022), according to the New Orleans Police Department, there have been a total of 13 reported incidents where juvenile victims between the ages of zero and 17 died from gunshot wounds.

The NOPD reports 92 incidents where juvenile victims were shot and survived.

While the stats may be triggering, some area physicians are taking action to hopefully change the cycle and create better futures for children.

“How can we channel our own emotions into action? How can we process our own emotions as a community of pediatricians but also how do we channel that into the next steps of action?” said Dr. Kim Mukerjee, a pediatrician at Tulane University.

Taking action with doctors across the country with the #DoctorsForGunSafety, Dr. Mukerjee has joined advocacy groups, donated to causes, written letters to lawmakers, and spoken on the issue with other pediatricians.

“As pediatricians, our job is to make sure they [children] are safe, that children are able to grow and thrive and become healthy adults,” she said. “I think as pediatricians in particular when we see children not only dying from gun violence but also being victims of the consequences of gun violence in the community, we know we have to address this because it directly impacts our patients.”

Dr. Mukerjee said it’s about cultivating their voices as pediatricians, but also as advocates for kids by incorporating gun safety into conversations with families.

“We know particularly in communities like New Orleans, gun violence and trauma exposure is something that too many of our patients deal with on an everyday basis,” she said. “We always say that kids are our future, but we have to ensure that they have a future if we really believe our words there. And it’s up to all of us to make sure that happens.”

“It is extremely difficult to process emotions around watching other people who are vulnerable get hurt,” said Dr. Kaplow. “And I think one of the things that is so important to do is to recognize your own threshold for what you can tolerate hearing.”

“We know that when community trauma happens, it doesn’t happen to just one person. It happens to the whole family. It happens to the whole community sometimes,” said Dr. Reuther.

Physicians remain hopeful that New Orleans can one day become a safer place for some of its most vulnerable citizens—its children.

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