Working the trauma service can be feast or famine. Gunshot wounds, stabbings, auto accidents; their arrival at the hospital is sporadic and unpredictable. The ambulances are either coming fast, dropping the latest shattered body off or you are insufferably bored. Sometimes it depends on the day of the week, the time of day, the season of the year. We joke it depends on the phase of the moon. It is odd depending on random acts of violence somewhere in the city for something to do. But, it’s just the way the trauma service works. You go about other routine tasks and wait for human disaster to arrive on your doorstep. There is a lot of disaster here.
St. Louis can be a dangerous city, depending on what part you are in. It is one of those middle American cities with a poor underclass. Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, they all have it. Lack of productive outlets and the innate human urge to make something of oneself lead young black men into the drug trade. With drugs comes guns and violence. Short of warfare, this is the most violent activity humans engage in. St. Louis is a little different from other cities I am familiar with. St. Louis also has East St. Louis. It’s actually a different municipality across the Mississippi river in Illinois; but it’s close enough and culturally similar enough to be thought of as belonging to the greater St. Louis area. East St. Louis has no police force. Enough corruption in city hall and a couple of big-time legal settlements against the city drove East St. Louis into bankruptcy. They had to sell city hall to settle one of the judgments. No city government means no police force. The state patrol cruises the highways but they never enter the city. Not their problem. Without a police force, what was already a crime filled enclave quickly turns into something like Dante’s Inferno. Prostitution, murder, muggings are all out on open display. Day or night. Without knowing your way around, you take your life into your own hands just by strolling through downtown. The liquor stores, of which there are many, function like bank vaults. Instead of picking your selection off the shelf and taking it to the cashier, you go to a guy behind bullet proof glass and tell him what you want. He fetches it off the shelf behind him and gives it to you through one of those one-way rolly drawers built into the counter. But not before you give him your money. I tell this to people from other parts of the country and they don’t believe me. That there is a lawless, Frontier West-like city in the US, akin to modern day Mogadishu is disturbing news. The most unbelieving are from the country club set.
The best trauma comes from East St. Louis. By best I mean the worst. When the drug dealers and/or gang-bangers shoot they mean to kill, not merely to wound or intimidate. That means a shot or multiple shots to the head and shots to the chest aimed at the heart. Depending on the level of the drug deal, the weapons used can be pretty sophisticated; customized assault weapons, basically. Tricked out Glock 19s, Bren Tens, Uzis, you name it. If there is a gang related shooting and the shooting victim manages to make it to the hospital and we are at all successful at keeping the guy alive, the fact the victim isn’t quite dead makes it back to the rival gang responsible for the shooting. The gangs scan the newspapers for the name of the shooting victim to make sure they got their man. If we do our jobs well and the victim lives, the rival gang cruises the hospital looking for the victim to finish the job. Roving bands of young black men in the hospital is a sure sign there was a recent gang related shooting. And they aren’t there to deliver flowers. To combat this, the trauma service assigns an alphanumeric designation to the victim and we use that rather than the victim’s name. Golf one, foxtrot twelve, etc. The doctors use it, the nurses. It’s on the hospital chart and lab slips. We hide the patient in plain sight. Getting your patient shot again while he is in the hospital is not considered good form. I am, of course, describing life in an inner city teaching hospital. This shit doesn’t happen out in the suburbs.
Over time, a weird sort of ecology develops between the gangs and the hospital. Enough gang members get shot and go to the hospital for the results of the shooting and subsequent medical care to make an impact back in the neighborhood. Some victims make it back and some don’t. The “some don’t make it back” part is obvious. They’re dead. The ones that do come back is a different story. With the use of high powered weapons, enough damage is inflicted on the internal organs; no amount of modern, high tech medical care can return what was a previously healthy young man back to what medical people describe as “functional”. In other words, the ones that do make it back are sometimes too mangled, never to fully recover, or are in some state of intermediate medical care and don’t quite act or look like they used to. This results in a bizarre combination of positive and negative feedback to the hospital. New shooting victims come to the hospital making specific requests about how we deal with their trauma. The new victim has seen this enough times, to know what to ask for. They do it like ordering off a Chinese menu; one from column A and two from column B, but nothing from column C. The most frequent nothing from column C request is: “Not the bag doc, anything but the bag”; the bag in question being an ostomy bag.
A bullet wound or stabbing to the abdomen often results in damage to the intestine. To repair the damage, the intestinal contents have to be re-routed to a surgically created opening in the abdominal wall called an ostomy. The ostomy, in effect, becomes the patient’s new anus. The intestinal contents are collected in a bag the patient periodically has to empty when it becomes full. The diversion of intestinal contents can sometimes be reversed when the patient heals. Sometimes not. Going back to the neighborhood with the bag can be problematic; especially when it comes to getting women. Feces dangling at your side is a tough way to score points with the opposite sex.
Medical people who see this day in and day out over months or years become emotionally immune to it. It’s just part of the job, we tell ourselves. The emotional immunity allows us to function and do the work. Every once in awhile something comes in that is just so awful, it sticks with you for a time. For me these are the botched suicides. Some teenage girl making a half hearted appeal for help by abrading her wrists with a butter knife isn’t it. It is the truly despondent, desperate people taking a gun to their head and missing. The worst messes are made with shotguns. Shotguns are meant to take a duck or a goose out of the air at 100 feet. At close range, or as is frequently the case in suicides, directly at the end of the barrel, the blast of shot acts with terrific force, shearing flesh and bone away in large chunks. Applied in the correct fashion through the brain, this leads to instant death. Incorrectly applied, it leads to shearing away a part of the scalp and skull and maybe a part of the brain. Or taking the entire face off. One fellow of recent memory did just that. He put the barrel of the gun under his chin rather than in his mouth. The blast was angled such that it took his lower face off; his lower jaw, part of his upper jaw, his tongue, his nose, part of the soft tissues of his throat. He had one big hole where his face used to be. His eyes, ears and brain, however, were intact. After the initial shock wore off, he was fully aware of what he had done to himself. He couldn’t speak, of course, but he made it clear he wanted to be put back together. It was a given we would. Doctors do that and that’s what they do; if the insurance companies let them. My boss spent hours on the phone with the man’s insurance company, dickering over dumb-ass things like whether we could get a psychiatric consult. The company’s point was… “Of course he’s depressed. You don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you that.” “Yes, but… we would like to know if he is likely to make another attempt at killing himself before the plastic surgeons spend $200,000 and several hundred man-hours constructing him a new face.” If there was any grace to be had, it was the man’s spouse who refused to desert her despondent mate when she had every reason to flee in horror. It was very affecting to witness this.
There are, of course, some parts of the brain that are more necessary than others. Victims of botched suicides sometimes get into the brain with their bullets, but this is no guarantee of death. The frontal lobes are in this regard somewhat expendable. If, say, a person puts the barrel of a handgun in the mouth and the angle of travel for the bullet is straight up, the bullet passes through the frontal lobes and only the frontal lobes. This results in the unintended frontal lobotomy but not death. To get at death with certainty, the bullet has to pass through the mid-brain or brain stem, neither of which you can live without. They are where the vital functions live, like breathing and making your heart beat correctly.
Topics like this are difficult to talk about with lay people. Doctors and nurses talk about it all the time amongst themselves but try not to scare the larger public with it. It doesn’t really go over so well at cocktail parties. Too, the emotional and psychological damage for the victims of trauma and their families can produce as raw a wound as any inflicted on the body. It is a separate anguish from physical pain and requires a different sort of healing. I’ve never been much of a church-goer, but one thing that has impressed me over the years is the ability of spirituality to at least make a start into the emotional healing that necessarily must accompany the physical. Religion does indeed have a verifiable way to deal with grief at an emotional level; offering the victims of violence, whose bodies have been torn apart never to be put back the same, some comfort, some consolation, some kind of emotional resurrection. “That God so loved the world, He gave his only son…” is an idea the mind can grasp and cling to when there isn’t anything else. Certainly not for everyone, but when it does take hold, religion’s ability to touch people can be profound. It offers insight into suffering and how to cope with it. That people find religious meaning helpful to them in the midst of pain is as much of an education as anything learned in school.