When Do Little Kids Stop Get Killed by "Guns"?

Usually, I try to keep stuff on my blog that is light, happy or about the store and what goes on there. I'm off today, and finally got to sit down this afternoon and read our local paper, the Long Beach Press Telegram. There was an article about a little boy, 11 years old, that was killed while walking with a 20 year old at 10pm at night to get some doughnuts. I ask myself, "why wasn't this child safely sleeping in bed, it was a school night". Then I reminded myself, it is so easy to judge others, especially when you aren't walking in their shoes. The surgeon that tried in vain to save this little boy wrote a column that was published in the Press-Telegram today. It was the middle of the afternoon as I sat in my family room with tears streaming down my face. Tears for the doctor, the little boy and his family, and our world, the way it is now. My oldest daughter, Brande, called me last night. She teaches an after school program in Pasadena. There are many lower income kids there. Brande has them write in their journals, a way to be creative, a way to put your feelings into words. She sadly had to take a journal to the school counselor because a little eight year old boy kept drawing pictures of shooting his little brother. Eight years old, a baby! We've been in Iraq for five years now. My son's friend enlisted at a young age. Last year, while he was in Bagdad, he was messing around in the barracks and accidently shot and killed his commanding officer. Timmy just turned 21 years old, and to me that is still pretty young! Now he is facing life in prison for accidently shooting a friend while serving his country. I remember several years ago he was at my house helping his two older brothers and my son move a big display cabinet into my kitchen. I guess we never know what the future holds. I don't get it, the violence that is. Guns kill people, its that simple. But I guess its not simple enough to try and regulate "guns" just a little bit better. Anyway, the article I've been talking about is posted below. As gut wrenching it is, it is worth reading! There's got to be a better way for our kids to grow-up. They are still kids, babies, no matter what color and are "entitled" to their childhoods!

A heart that can't be mended
By Dr. Mauricio Heilbron Jr.
Article Launched: 03/17/2008 07:43:57 PM PDT

An 11-year-old boy was killed and a 20-year-old man was wounded in an apparent gang-related shooting in Long Beach Sunday night. The shooting occurred in the 2000 block of East 15th Street about 10 p.m. The victims were standing in front of a residence when they were approached by two suspects, police said. The 11-year-old and the 20-year-old did not appear to be related. Jose Luis Garcia Bailey, 11, was struck in the upper torso in the ensuing gunfire and declared dead at a hospital. The man was struck in the lower torso and is expected to live.
- News report posted on presstelegram.com

By Dr. Mauricio Heilbron Jr.
I just finished sewing up a dead boy.

I pronounced him dead at 10:34 p.m. Sunday. It's now 11:27 p.m. I know I won't be able to get to sleep for a long time. I feel like I shouldn't.

I'm a trauma surgeon at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. I was sulking in my call room on Palm Sunday because I missed yet another important moment in my 5-year-old son's life. A tarantula crawled all over him at his best friend's birthday party, and my wife had e-mailed me a glorious photo of this big, hairy arachnid on my son's face. The phone rings, and I am summoned to the ER for a "gunshot wound to the chest." That's bad, but around these parts, sadly not a surprise. Then the ER secretary adds, "... in a 12-year-old." That changes things a bit. As I hurry down to the Emergency Department, I play out several horrific scenarios in my head - a mental exercise in preparation for what certainly was to be a difficult situation.
I arrive to a room filled to capacity with doctors, nurses, techs, volunteers, firemen, policemen and paramedics. The strictly medical people are swarming around an impossibly small figure, in a flurry of needle sticks in search of a vein, monitor-pad placement in search of a vital sign, stethoscopes vainly searching for a breath sound or a heartbeat. The non-medical personnel had formed a concerned and curious peanut gallery. One ER doctor blurts out the important points, "GSW to the chest, pulses in the field but ... ," while another ER doctor is prepping this small chest for an ER thoracotomy. In English, an "ER thoracotomy" is where you flay open a chest in a soon-to-be-dead patient, in the hopes of finding a hole you can quickly but temporarily fix. Once that is done, it gives you a chance to give the patient necessary things like blood and IV fluids (where they now will not simply flow out of those repaired holes), and get him to the OR so you can fix him properly. It is the trauma surgery equivalent of a Hail Mary football pass. This is not a "difficult situation"; this is a nightmare.

The ER doctor hands me the knife, as if to say, "Here. It's yours." I think the kid is dead, or if not dead, then he certainly is "unsalvageable," which is a horrible word to use for a human being. I don't think he's fixable. However, if he is to have any hope of survival, the only way to save him is to crack him open and try to plug up the holes. Cracking open an 11-year-old boy (he was two months shy of his 12th birthday) is going to tear my own heart in half, I think to myself, but this is part of what I do, so I slip the gloves on and take the knife.

There is precious little skin to cut through, and I'm in the chest in a few seconds. His chest cavity is filled with blood, which spills out of his chest like a macabre waterfall to the floor. There's a shredded tear in his lung, and a big, ragged hole in his heart. All the IV fluids that my associates are pouring into the patient are flowing out this hole and on to my shoes. I put my finger in this hole - such a big hole in such a small heart - but blood and fluids still flow unfettered. My other hand finds another, larger hole on the other side of his heart. My fingers touch. His heart is empty. Mine breaks.

The boy's family is brought in while I am bathed in his blood, as "studies have shown" that this is better for everyone involved, to be present as the end nears. I scramble for a way to just stop the bleeding. I just want it to stop. It's spilling over my hands on to the gurney. His mother is begging me to do what I can. I know I can't do anything. She tells me to take her heart, and give it to him. I know that's not possible, and she knows that's not possible, but she could not be more serious. The first ER doc is sitting alongside the mom, gently telling her that we've done everything we can do. His mother looks at me. My hands are still in the boy's chest, trying to do something, anything. In her eyes, I see a soul that I am about to crush with a little nod of my head. I do so.

As the howl of unimaginable grief shakes the entire ER, I am filled with anger. Why do we still sell guns in this country? What is this child doing on the streets after 10 o'clock at night? Why are we killing our innocent young soldiers overseas, and ignoring the merciless gangbangers - terrorists in their own right - that are invading ourstreets here at home? I try to put these thoughts away, because now, in front of his family, I have to sew him up. I have to close this huge gash in his left side, that I made. I place the first stitch, and as I'm tying the knot, I look at the boy's face. He's small for 11, not that much bigger than my son Ben. All the adrenaline is gone. My shoulders sag. I feel myself start to cry, and I know that I can't stop it. I have no way of hiding because literally everybody is looking at me, including his mother, and my hands are busy, so I can't wipe the tears away. I make eye contact with the mom, and whisper "I'm sorry." I finish closing his chest up, and shuffle off to the sink to wash this child's blood off my arms.

In the doctor's area, I start filling out the pointless paperwork. Several nurses and doctors come over to offer encouraging words, or a consoling hand on the shoulder. I want to quit. I don't want to do this anymore. I want to quit because that means I can go home. When I go home, I can quietly open the door to my son's room, and sit on the floor right next to his bed. I'll watch him sleep, that blissful sleep only found in young children. I'll watch him for hours, and tell myself how lucky I am to have him in my life. I want my son to put my heart back together.

But I can't go home, as I'm on call until 8 a.m. I can't quit. Tomorrow I have patients, surgeries, rounds - the usual stuff. Hopefully, I'll be home for dinner. When I come through the door, I'll hear his cheerful yell of "Daddy!" and he'll jump into my arms. He will in all likelihood never know how much that moment means to me, but it is precisely that resuscitative energy that will restore me. To keep coming back to this sort of work.

I will sneak into his room after he falls asleep. I'll give him an extra kiss good night. And then, just maybe, I'll close my eyes.

Dr. Mauricio Heilbron Jr. is chief of surgery at Little Company of Mary Hospital in San Pedro and a trauma surgeon at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.

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