For Chicago trauma center and its staff, city’s violence takes physical, emotional toll

CHICAGO -- Violence in Chicago doesn’t just affect those in dangerous neighborhoods – it has become a healthcare crisis that affects us all. The price of medical treatment in Cook County is exorbitant, trauma care averages more than $50,000 per injured person – and that doesn’t include follow-up or long-term care.

The Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence says, in total, every year the city pays $2.5 billion for gunshot victims. Split among Cook County taxpayers, that is $2500 dollars a home – even for suburban residents. And that doesn’t take into account the emotional price for families and healthcare providers.

Recently, WGN News went inside Mount Sinai Hospital  on Chicago’s West Side to see the true cost of gunfire and the amazing care against all odds.

Dr Amir Vafa is chief of trauma surgery at the hospital that has one of the busiest trauma centers in the city.

“There have been times when I have had to tell someone on Mother’s Day that their child died,” he says. “It does take a physical and emotional toll.  There’s a whole group of other patients whose lives we can save. And that kind of provides the emotional energy to keep doing what we are doing.”

About 50 percent of the patients Dr Vafa and his team care for are victims of violence – mostly gun shot and stab wounds. And for those who survive, the injuries can be life-altering.

Many of the patients are so critical, they require one-on-one care. Nurses never leave their side.

April Keita is a registered critical care nurse.  She says patients “might wake up and they might be missing an arm or a leg or they might be severely disabled for the rest of their lives and they get angry with the nurses. … We do have to call security sometimes.”

“You do have to be concerned when you are dealing with gang violence, have to be concerned with retaliation,” she says.

“If they are badly injured, we may be able to save their life but they may not be the way they were before they were injured,” Dr Vafa says.  “In that case, they may be disabled. They may not be able to have a job to be able to be as productive. Sometimes they can’t care for themselves.”

The damages range from spinal cord and brain injuries to abdominal trauma that impacts the intestines.

Dr Vafa has conversation with patients on a daily basis that detail how surgery on gunshot wounds will affect the body and the intestines.

“It’s part of the standard of care to give them the bag on certain injuries,” he says.

The colostomy bag is a temporary replacement for the intestines, but outside of the body.

“In our community, everybody knows about the colostomy bag because either they’ve had it or they’ve had friends who have had it,” Dr Vafa says.  “That’s one of the biggest questions we get before we take patients to the operating room: ‘Don’t give me the bag.’ But if we have to give it to them.  We just explain to them that this is life or death this is what we have to do.  … It’s kind of sad in a way but it’s kind of the way things are here.”

But in the last several months, some things have changed at the hospital. Dr Vafa has seen more patients injured or killed by rapid fire automatic rifles.

“The assault rifles, we even talked to Stroger (Hospital).  We’re seeing a spike in the past month or so and those are really devastating injuries.”

In many cases, Dr Vafa doesn’t always know the details of the crime but he does know weapons on the street are getting stronger, injuries are more severe and patients more plentiful.

“I think the very worst ones are when you see the very young children who are just clearly victims,” he says. “We’re talking 3-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 8-year-olds.  On the drive home that’s kind of when I think about it the most and occasionally I get sad because some of this crime is just absolutely senseless."