'The first time I saw a teenager die': What it's like to treat gunshot patients in America

As a first-year medical student working in Temple University Hospital's trauma bay, Eric Curran was "haunted" by failed efforts to resuscitate gunshot victims. Now in his third year of medical school, Curran reflects on his experience in the New York Times, aiming to help others "understand what ... happen[s]" to gunshot patients in America.

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A haunting image

"I remember the first time I saw a teenager die," Curran writes. The patient arrived with three bullet holes in his chest. The nurses cut off the victim's jeans, which "had turned red," and attempted to save him.

"After nothing more could be done ... the bed that held his thin body was rolled away, leaving streaks of blood across the floor," Curran writes.

Curran reflects that the image "haunted" him. "I think it always will," he adds.  

Gunshot victims usually arrive in the backs of ambulances and police cars in the ED, Curran writes, where clinicians put the patients on stretchers and rush them to treatment. "If they are awake, they may ask if they're going to die. The doctor tells them no," Curran writes.

"[I]f the heart stops, doctors break through the sternum with a mallet and a chisel," Curran writes. "Two gloved hands hold the heart and start to squeeze," and nurses put defibrillation paddles directly on the patient's "lifeless heart" to get it working again. "If God or luck or physiology allows, it beats again," Curran writes. 

Preserving the scene

The trauma bay appears chaotic and "splattered" during the struggle to save a gunshot victim, but once the effort is over, the room turns "silent," Curran writes. "Gauze, tubes, shirts, gloves, pants, tape, and sneakers lie scattered. Hospital workers come in and wash away the blood ... and work with respect and grace, on hands and knees," Curran writes. "The room must be cleaned quickly because another young victim could be wheeled in soon."

Deeply affected by the scenes, Curran says he began taking photos of the trauma bay after failed resuscitation efforts "out of the helplessness and despair [he] felt about these senseless deaths." The photos, some of which were published on the Times website, do not feature images of the victims.  

He writes, "I wondered if capturing and sharing the moments after lives are saved and lost could help Americans understand what is happening" (Curran, New York Times, 2/14).

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