From Teaching to Triage
A reflection on gun violence
I remember that day very vividly. December 14, 2012. I was nearly 3000 miles away, but there is something about being in a school when news of a school shooting breaks that can create an uneasiness that sticks in your memory. I was teaching sixth-grade mathematics and I remember we didn’t have regular class that day- how could we? We spent the day reading the news, watching reports, attempting to answer students’ unanswerable questions. The thing about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is that not only was it was the deadliest school shooting in our nation’s history, but most of the victims were 6- and 7-years old.
An article that interviewed survivors of the Columbine school shooting that occurred April 20, 1999, stated that “since Columbine, there has been an average of 10 shootings per year in American schools.” As someone who has spent all of my life in school in some capacity, this resonates with me. Students and teachers shouldn’t have to be afraid to go to school or work. Yet I remember the nervous feelings I would have in the days and weeks following a school shooting. Wondering if the news may have inspired a copy-cat or sparked an idea in a disgruntled student. I remember checking and double-checking that my classroom door was locked at all times. I remember learning at a staff meeting to “Run, Hide, Fight”. I remember counseling students that we have safety plans in place if, God forbid, it was to ever happen here.
Sadly, this has become our new normal and all too familiar. In an article titled “The School Shooting Generation Has Had Enough”, Time Magazine reported that while the United States accounts for only 4.4% of the world’s population, it represents 42% of the world’s guns and 31% of the world’s mass shooters. As if the disproportionate representation of mass shooters isn’t shocking enough, the title alone is upsetting- “the School Shooting Generation?”
Recently, I participated in an active shooter Mass Casualty Incident on the PNWU campus. My classmates and I worked alongside first responders to practice triaging and treating multiple gunshot victims. Unfortunately, drills to prepare first responders and medical personnel for mass shootings have become an essential training measure. We are training for a day we hope never comes, but recognizing the importance of being prepared for the worst. At the very same time that we practiced our triage and rescue skills, students and supporters from all over the country participated in the March for Our Lives movement started by students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, calling for change in legislation and common sense gun laws. We were preparing for the unimaginable, while others lobbied for measures of prevention. Both important. Both necessary.
In response to the issue of gun violence, an article published in JAMA this past November declared gun violence a public health crisis and calls on physicians to do more. Supporters of March for Our Lives call on students to speak out and register to vote. Another movement March Up Not Out calls on people to reach out and make connections with each other.
We recognize there is a problem, but it is so multi-faceted and seemingly out of our hands, so what can any of us do? I’m glad you asked.
- As physicians we can ask questions about guns in the home and advise on proper, safe storage. We can perform screening for mental health concerns regarding depression or suicidal ideation. We can do our best to recognize inappropriate coping strategies and refer to proper mental health specialists to teach more effective ways of dealing with anger, frustration, depression. We can also get involved in advocacy and policy making to help increase access to mental health care.
- Every one of us can educate ourselves on the legislation and the movements that are occurring all over the nation. We can join in the conversations and engage our legislators by writing letters, emails, or calling to voice our opinions. We can exercise our right and responsibility to vote.
- We can all educate ourselves and our loved ones on what to do in case we are ever in an active shooter situation in an effort to reduce casualties in these situations. Run if you can run and get as far away as you can. If you are unable to get away, hide. As a last resort- fight back.
- We can look out for each other and recognize unusual behaviors and cries for help.
- If you own a firearm, educate yourself on proper handling and storage. Proper storage of firearms is the number one way to reduce accidents or misuse. If you do have firearms in the home, please be sure to follow proper safe storage guidelines. Project Child Safe has compiled a list of safe and responsible firearm handling and storage which are outlined here.
Our students and teachers should not be afraid to go to school. I don’t think there is one simple answer - its not just about guns, its not just about mental health. We have arrived here because a lot of things are broken. So let’s have conversations around these issues and work towards solutions. Let’s use our voice to advocate for change. Let’s join in the effort, however we can, to end this era of mass shootings.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st year (OMS I)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences