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How emergency workers are combating gun violence: 'We have to invest'

Emergency workers combat gun violence with crime prevention programs
Posted at 12:01 AM, Jul 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-15 17:21:48-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As rates of gun violence continued to climb in the city, the chief of trauma at the VCU Medical Center said hospital-based crime prevention programs were proving effective in combating crime. But added that those programs couldn't act alone.

"I was shot in my leg. Right here," said TaeQuan Smith, as he pointed to his scars outside the VCU Medical Center. "And this is actually the little surgery they did to me."

It took weeks of treatment and therapy for TaeQuan Smith to get back on his feet after being shot three times outside his home on Hillside Court in October of 2017.

"I heard them calling 911, and I'm on the ground, I’m just thinking to myself, 'stay calm, they’re going to come. Stay calm, they’re going to come.' Eventually, they came and rushed me to the hospital," said Smith

The then 16-year-old athlete said he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but his injuries landed him in the VCU Trauma Center where he received more than just physical treatment.

"I believe they put me in that program for a reason," Smith said.

While still in the hospital, Smith enrolled in one of VCU's Injury Violence Prevention programs called Bridging the Gap. He was assigned a case manager who acted as an advocate on his behalf, both inside the hospital and out.

"This program actually helped me get through a lot over the years. It helped me actually stop thinking about getting shot," Smith said.

Dr. Michel Aboutanos is the director of the program and Chief of Trauma at the VCU Trauma Center.

"We work so hard to treat someone, only to see them come back and be injured again. And you have to start all over again, you're like a band-aid," said Aboutanos.

He said he started the program in 2007 after a patient received treatment for gunshot wound injuries on three separate occasions. The third was a fatal wound to the head.

"Twenty percent of patients that are injured, and especially from violence, literally, they come back to us. And out of those, a significant number of them come back in to die."

Aboutanos said they’d been able to reduce that recidivism rate significantly for patients in Injury and Violence Prevention Program, from 20 percent to below 3.5 percent.

"We engage them in community aspect and school programs, we put them into summer programs," Aboutanos said.

Aboutanos said case managers not only worked with victims but also with individuals that were deemed 'at risk,' and create opportunities and jobs for them.

"Prevention is a major part of the solution as well," Aboutanos said.

As the VCU Trauma Center continued to see an influx in gun-related admissions, with numbers climbing since 2019, Aboutanos said programs like these were crucial but limited in how much could do alone.

Dr. Aboutanos said despite these efforts, the trauma center was on track to treat more than 500 patients in 2021, a 120 percent increase since 2018.

"It cannot be just people like me alone, calling for it. And one of the main obstacles that we have to put our differences aside and think together as one community," Aboutanos said.

Along with a need for community support and more resources, Aboutanos said they didn’t have the funding to deal with the magnitude of the problem.

He and city leaders declared gun violence a public health crisis in May and called are for state and federal dollars to respond to the emergency.

Dr. Aboutanos called on policymakers to make the Trauma Center Fund as well as funding for prevention and intervention efforts a priority.

"This is not a movie, this is not a statistic, you know, this is a young person that could have been a phenomenal person, the future of our society, and we have to invest," Aboutanos said.

Smith knew the kind of impact prevention programs could have. It landed him a job. And he takes what he learned now working as a peer support specialist at the VCU Medical Center.

"It helped me start focusing more on my life more," said Smith. "Now I talk to people. Help them feel better. Help them think about what they’re going to do when they get out of the hospital. So basically, what they did for me."