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Kansas City trauma surgeon providing second chances to gun violence victims

Editor’s Note: This is one of 14 different perspectives The Journal is reporting on the topic of guns and public safety in Kansas. Click here to find more.

At KU’s sprawling medical complex in Kansas City, the number of people seeking immediate care ebbs and flows but the traffic never stops. On average, the trauma staff sees a gunshot victim about four times a week. That’s too many for trauma surgeon Robert Winfield.

Robert Winfield became a trauma surgeon because he believes in second chances. Patients arrive in his emergency room at the University of Kansas Health System every day because of bad luck or bad decisions – a gamut of automobile crashes, drug-related altercations, domestic abuse and other calamities that alter lives in a span of seconds. Gunshot wounds from accidents, assaults and attempted suicides comprise a sizable portion of the carnage, about 200 admissions in 2017. Across the state, firearm-related injuries brought 567 emergency room visits to Kansas hospitals in fiscal year 2017, according to the Kansas Hospital Association.

“We relish the opportunity to take care of people regardless of the circumstances that bring them to us, but sometimes the patients we treat have high-risk behaviors that may have led them to an unfortunate injury,” says Winfield, division chief of Acute Care Surgery, Trauma & Surgical Critical Care at the University of Kansas Health System. “Some victims live but are often left with permanent disabilities – significant brain injuries or paraplegia or quadriplegia. These are the consequences.”

Second Chances

Regardless of the circumstances that bring patients to the hospital or the conditions in which they leave, Winfield’s practice is to reassure everyone that he cares and to emphasize that a second chance presents new possibilities.

Winfield, who joined the health system in July 2015, considers these conversations an essential complement to his medical treatment and hopes the exchanges prompt better choices.

One individual who had had surgery at another area hospital for a gunshot wound was transferred to Winfield’s care for his own safety when his assailant found out where he was and worries arose that the shooter might try to inflict further harm.

“It’s not my role to judge people,” he says. “I take a moment when I first meet them to let them know that I care about them as people, that I understand that the experience they’re going through is scary and that we’re glad they’re here so we can take care of them.” That shooting victim encountered Winfield in a hospital hallway months later.

“He said that after everything that had happened to him, he remembered that I really cared about him,” Winfield says. “It was a gratifying moment.”

The toll that violence takes extends beyond the victim and the immediate family

That was a good day, but one of the worst was June 15, 2018, when two Wyandotte County sheriff’s deputies were shot while transferring a prisoner. Patrick Rohrer, 35, was a seven-year veteran of the sheriff’s department and a father of two. Theresa King, 44, was a 13-year veteran and a mother of three.

“Each had sustained a lethal injury,” Winfield says. “The worst part of these situations is speaking with the families. Nothing can prepare you for the anguish people are experiencing.”

In October 2017, gun violence struck the trauma department’s staff when Leah Elizabeth Brown, 22, daughter of ER nurse Gretchen Brown, was killed in a crossfire on Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence while home on medical leave from Navy basic training. At her mother’s urging, Brown had gone to Lawrence with a friend instead of heading to the Westport entertainment district in Kansas City, Missouri, because her mother thought she would be safer there.

When such devastating events occur, a debriefing team is dispatched to the unit. In 2018, the hospital launched a new program, HOPE (Helping Our People Endure). Twenty-five HOPE volunteer coaches have undergone training and are available to respond on a moment’s notice to support a team member.

“Health care workers are becoming increasingly aware of how essential it is to decompress,” says Winfield, himself a long-distance runner. “And it’s not just in the moment. People react to things over time, so we continue to look for changes in personality or behavior in team members so that we can provide the resources they need to help them process and perform their roles.”

Engaging Community to Find the Common Good and Combat Gun Violence

Winfield, a Florida native, fired his father’s shotgun on occasion as a teen and later hunted pheasant and quail with his father-in-law in Illinois. He owned a gun for a short period of time, but the father of four no longer keeps one in his house because he says “having guns in the home increases the risk of accidental deaths, injuries and suicides without conferring a protective effect.”

And though he describes gun violence as “a legitimate public health issue,” he’s quick to note that he’s not against guns.

“Hunting’s not my thing, but it’s a perfectly reasonable recreational pastime,” says Winfield. He praises an American College of Surgeons statement released in November for bringing together surgeons who are also firearms advocates to come up with a balanced position for advancing gun safety from a public health standpoint.

The group’s recommendations include vigorous background checks, enhanced gun-safety training and storage responsibilities, mandatory reporting requirements for people considered a threat to themselves or others, technologies to prevent accidental firearms discharges, and identifying and reporting socially isolated children who express thoughts of violence.

The report was released a few weeks after mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. One of its recommendations is that the “public, professionals in law enforcement and the press should take steps to eliminate notoriety of the shooter and take an editorially muted approach to the coverage of these events” to help reduce the onslaught of copycat killings that typically happen in public spaces where people have a presumption of safety (schools, houses of worship, workplaces and entertainment venues).

The work group spent five years soliciting input from surgeons across the country through surveys, small group meetings and forums in an attempt to gather data, foster debate and find common ground.

“This approach has led to a dialogue between those who may differ with respect to their views on the benefits of firearm ownership and personal liberty, but who agree upon the critical importance of reducing injuries and deaths related to firearms,” the report says.

“The work group’s efforts are not about disarmament but decreasing the number of injuries and the consequences that result,” says Winfield. “It’s about people coming together to create solutions that respect life as well as the constitutional right to bear arms. As physicians who see the same things over and over, we want action that reduces instead of increases firearm injuries and deaths. Because after years of declines, we’re seeing a disturbing upward trend.”

Despite the obvious polarization on the issue, Winfield thinks that the College of Surgeons’ position can lead to policies to reverse the trend.

“For the first time in a long time, I’m seeing this issue being addressed thoughtfully and intelligently,” he says. “It’s not about demanding that guns be banned from society. It’s about coming together to find solutions that will save lives.”

A version of this article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit https://www.amazon.com/Journal-Kansas-Civic-Leadership-Development/dp/B00DHU4X44/.

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