Especially on warmer nights, the gun victims arrive in waves. Typically, they get to the emergency rooms by ambulance. If they come by car, sometimes the driver or other passengers roll them out at the entrance like a heap of dirty laundry before speeding away.
It makes no difference whether the victim was shot by a stray bullet, shot in a domestic fight or shot by a gang member. Emergency medicine physician Mark Cichon, DO, hears them say the same thing over and over.
“There are two things that everyone pleads for in their terminal moments: One is their mother, and one is God,” he says. “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
Cichon is chair of emergency medicine at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, a level 1 trauma center just west of the city. This past March, he partnered with Rev. Michael Hayes, a chaplain at Loyola, to publish a letter in the Chicago Tribune. In it, they make a case for classifying gun violence as a public health epidemic on par with Zika virus, heart disease and obesity.
Another harrowing letter, from Catherine Humikowski, MD, medical director of pediatric critical care at University of Chicago Medicine, published in the Chicago Tribune in October 2015, highlighted the same goal.
The victims are steadily mounting. There were 2,988 people shot in Chicago in 2015, and 4,368 shot in 2016, according to the Tribune. The city of Chicago has become synonymous with gun violence in many eyes, while our society has grown almost immune to the news.
Society isn’t just immune. It’s lost.
In addition to the thousands of people tragically shot, gun violence costs Americans billions of dollars each year in law enforcement, healthcare and lost wages. However, the issue has become so politically charged that people aren’t able to talk about it without invoking the Second Amendment. And that’s when things can get ugly.
Relentless gun violence
Cichon and Hayes are striving to remove politics from the argument by presenting the issue in terms of public health.
“Let’s say we were talking about polio or West Nile or Zika. If a doctor of a major hospital said, ‘Hey, we’re in trouble,’ I’d expect to see city officials stepping forward,” Hayes says. “I’m looking for people to band together to do whatever it takes. There comes a time to say, ‘I’m going to pitch in here.’ Because that’s what it means to be a citizen.”
But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the shootings continue. Hayes tells of a teenage patient who died of gunshot wounds, the bullet tearing apart the teen’s internal organs beyond repair. Hayes recounts the many times a week he has been called on to provide spiritual support for gunshot victims in the emergency room or intensive care unit.
Humikowski says she saw so many gunshot victims in her first week at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital that she wanted to quit. She cared for more children who had been shot in that one week than she had in two years of training in Boston.
Most kids on the South Side either know someone who has been shot or they’ve been shot themselves, Humikowski says. “They don’t perceive a future without violence because it’s not something they’ve ever had.”