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Trauma center medical director explains public health implications of guns


Between mass shootings and much more common day-to-day gun violence, there were more than 45,000 firearm-related deaths in the U.S. in 2020 or, to put it another way, about 124 each day. That comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta regularly treats the people who make up that data. The hospital has a certified Level I trauma center, meaning it's equipped to deal with the most serious injuries, including many gunshot injuries. Dr. Elizabeth Benjamin is the trauma medical director for Grady, and she joins us now. Welcome.

ELIZABETH BENJAMIN: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So I know that Grady is one of the busiest trauma centers in the country. Can you just tell us, what does that look like on a daily basis for you?

BENJAMIN: Yeah, we see a lot of trauma at Grady. We are definitely one of the busier trauma centers in the nation. We have about a quarter of our patients that come in from penetrating trauma. So that means gunshot wounds, stab wounds, these kinds of violent crimes. And at Grady, we have - a really high proportion of those are from gunshot wounds. And the number of gunshot wound victims has increased significantly over the last decade. And it has really become a nightly occurrence that we have, often, multiple gunshot victims on a nightly basis here at the trauma center.

CHANG: What is the cause of most of the firearm-related injuries that you see? Like, is it intentional violence? Is it accidents? What's the biggest proportion?

BENJAMIN: It's typically intentional. We do have a surprising number of unintentional or things that get coded as unintentional. But the vast, vast majority is violent crime, intentional.

CHANG: Yeah. You know, I was thinking the other day, when we talk about the cost of gun violence, we tend to focus on deaths, right? Like after a mass shooting, there's almost a sigh of relief for the people who are, quote-unquote, "only injured" by the gunfire. But let's be very clear here - gun injuries are often life-changing. Can you talk about that piece of it? Like, what's the range of what you see among the people who survive?

BENJAMIN: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. Well, there's a huge range. I mean, I agree with you. So many people talk about, oh, somebody was lucky. They only have this injury. I mean, it's - they were still shot. I mean, there's nothing lucky about that. The way that the body reacts and the way that the mind reacts is obviously different, but, you know, there's two real components to it. There's the psychological component. So some people might not suffer physical - you know, long-term physical harm, but they'll still suffer quite a bit of psychological harm from the incident.

And then from a bodily harm, you know, for injuries sustained, it's a huge effect. I mean, we have patients that come in that are paralyzed, you know, paraplegic, quadriplegic. Their entire life changes in an instant. You know, they'll lose a limb. They'll have massive changes, you know, to their liver function, their internal organs. We'll do operations, and they'll be dealing with the repercussions of those injuries for, possibly, the rest of their life. And, you know, it doesn't just change their life. It changes the life of their family and their friends, their livelihood. It's - the impact is really difficult to quantify, almost impossible.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, from your point of view, as someone who is inside the health care system, how would you describe the way guns are affecting this country's public health as a whole?

BENJAMIN: Oh, I mean, it's a public health crisis. There's just too many guns. I mean, there's too many people that are getting shot and injured. And it is a true public health crisis. I mean, the numbers of people that we're seeing directly and indirectly, secondarily affected by gun violence is - I mean, it's one of the biggest public health problems that we're facing right now.

CHANG: I have to ask, do you ever see a time when gun violence will not be such a massive problem in the U.S.? What do you think?

BENJAMIN: Well, I have to say, yes. I mean, that's why we do this, right? I don't do this job to keep treating victims of gun violence. You know, a huge part of our job that we do is support violence prevention. A lot of hospitals are really working to improve this and broaden the reach. We have a lot of programs within the city of Atlanta, a lot of programs that are funded by Grady and the city and overall and a lot of people working towards that. So I have to believe that there's a chance to really decrease this burden and this health care crisis.

CHANG: That is Dr. Elizabeth Benjamin. She's Grady Memorial Hospital's trauma medical director in Atlanta. Thank you very much for joining us.

BENJAMIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.