I was lying on a gurney with my eyes closed. Although I was drifting in and out of consciousness, I could sense that a lot was going on around me, because of me. At one point that night, I looked up and saw a man dressed almost like an astronaut, covered head-to-toe in protective equipment. He was a trauma surgeon.
Hours before, I was at my high school’s first football game of the year. This all happened a long time ago, when I was a teenager, but I can still call to mind the sound of the school bands and cheerleaders. Shortly after the game, a fight broke out in a nearby park. I turned, and saw flashes of light. That’s what I remember about the moment I was shot: flashes of light. Time seemed to slow down. People were screaming and running around me. My white shirt was covered in blood. My friends, frantic, implored me to lie down. My mouth filled with blood, and I began to choke. As I discovered later, the .38-caliber bullet had ripped a hole in my windpipe and injured my carotid artery. I was bleeding into my airway.
The trauma surgeon was named Robert Ahmed. He saved my life that night by punching a hole in my windpipe, a procedure known as a tracheostomy. Dipankar Mukherjee, a vascular surgeon, made an incision in my left leg and removed a piece of vein to form a patch for the hole in my carotid artery.
I spent more than a month in the hospital, figuring out basics such as how to talk with a paralyzed left vocal cord. But long after I recovered, the experience of getting shot stayed with me—and I don’t just mean in the shape of the scars on my neck or in the sound of my voice. It’s not overly dramatic to say that it changed the whole course of my life: That night led to me becoming a trauma surgeon.
In the trauma bay, I felt fear, awe, and determination. Fear that I might die, awe at the calm skill of the medical personnel, and determination to give back to the same field that gave me a second chance.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that “giving back” must be about more than applying the skills I learned in medical school or even on the job. Once the gun has gone off, I can do only so much. As a surgeon, I fix damage; the best-case scenario is that the damage never happens to begin with. But, due to a tangled web of political and economic interests, the debate over how we prevent firearm-related injury and death is one that many members of my profession are reluctant to broach. The backlash is all too predictable.
Last month, after the Annals of Internal Medicine published a series of research papers on firearm injuries that included recommendations on how to reduce gun violence, the National Rifle Association said on Twitter that “anti-gun” doctors should “stay in their lane.” The NRA also found it “upsetting” that “the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.”
For me, of course, it’s all just one lane. Back when I was a fellow at a trauma center in Philadelphia, I met with a group of minority high-school students from the city. After a tour of the trauma bay, we gathered in a classroom, and I delivered a lecture about the dire consequences of gun violence. I suppose it was rather dry and the kids weren’t paying attention: They whispered and giggled among themselves. So I dropped the objectivity and told them that I was shot when I was around their age. That got their attention. I told them my story, which held their attention. When I asked if anyone in the room had been personally or indirectly affected by a shooting, nearly every hand went up.
My story allowed me to go from being an unscathed “doc in a white coat” to someone who could actually relate to the pain and anguish those teens had experienced due to gun violence.
Obviously, most surgeons cannot relate to the problem of gun violence quite so intimately. But it’s incumbent on them not to stay in just one lane—to accept that prevention must be our purview as much as mitigation.
Universal background checks, violence-intervention programs, and red-flag laws can all reduce the incidence of firearm-related injury and death. Trauma surgeons are well aware of these facts. Most—thank God—have never experienced what I did that night in high school, but they’ve attended to countless victims and can explain what they’ve seen in personal terms.
Fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons (especially young sons of color) are shot and killed every day. We have an obligation to tell their stories, to work tirelessly not only in the operating room, but outside it as well.