All across the United States, we're told, crime has been going down. But in the inner cities of places like Los Angeles, gang-related violence is still a fact of everyday life.
We don't read about it a lot in the newspapers, but it's news that Dr. Juan Asensio lives with all the time. Dr. Asensio, a surgeon, has spent a lifetime trying to save kids who have been shot – often by other kids. Dan Rather reports for 60 Minutes II.
Because so many teen-agers have died in his operating room, Dr. Asensio has come up with some strong medicine - a unique way to try to save them before they show up at his hospital on a stretcher.
"I've always viewed the operating room as a place where we can give another human being a chance of life, a place that is, to me, very, very sacred," says Dr. Asensio.
He says he prays before he goes in: "And, at times, I get upset at God because I can't understand why we're losing."
A senior trauma surgeon, Dr. Asensio has treated hundreds of kids in his operating room. Many of the teen-agers he treats have been shot or stabbed, often by other kids.
One gang member recently was shot because he was walking in the wrong place, or had the wrong tattoo. Thanks to Dr. Asensio, he'll survive. Many don't.
"I get upset at the tremendous waste of life that sometimes we see, when there is senseless violence or violent acts perpetrated on…individuals," Asensio says. "I have yet to feel comfortable - and will never feel comfortable - with the concept that I will have to approach a family and let them know that a family member of theirs has died."
Does he sometimes get angry with young people for doing what they do to put themselves on his operating table?
"Yes," says Dr. Asensio. "I get upset, because I think some of 'em, by putting themselves in these situations, are wasting their own most precious life and impacting, in a very negative way, their family."
Dr. Asensio works at a public hospital – Los Angeles County–U.S.C. Medical Center, located in one of the most dangerous and violent areas of Los Angeles, where random, drive-by gang shootings are a frequent occurrence.
Because he's lost so many kids, Dr. Asensio has launched a very personal crusade, trying to save kids before they show up in his operating room. He shows them pictures. Call them snapshots from the operating room.
"Blood everywhere," the surgeon observes of one photo. "He was a wise guy, you know? Tough guy, right? Kind of guy that goes out there on the street corner and yells at little old ladies, robs people, does drugs, and tries to intimidate other people. This kid had his heart stopped three times. Got over 100 units of blood. This is the exit wound from the heart, but he got shot 13 times."
So far, the doctor has lectured more than 12,000 kids - in jails, schools and at his hospital. When the kids go to his hospital, they are brought by sheriff's deputies, police and social welfare officers.
Most of them have been in some kind of trouble with the law. Many have been arrested. Some are on probation. Others are truants. A lot come from broken homes.
Dr. Asensio, who is on call around the clock for medical emergencies, makes time when he can to give the visiting kids a tour of the hospital. He hopes to shock them and scare them and show them just how serious - and painful - emergency trauma treatment can be.
Some of the kids Dr. Asensio talks to aren't even in their teens yet. We wanted to find out why they get involved in crime at such a young age, so the doctor invited us to meet and talk with some of them.
Rosa is just 17.
Rather: "Why do people get in gangs? Particularly so young. At 11 years old, why would you get in a gang?"
Rosa: "Probably because they wanna be a big shot. They wanna be all that. You know, they wanna feel the power in the hands. They wanna feel a lot of things."
Juan Hernandez is even younger and decided to join a gang.
Rather: "Why did you join?"
Juan: "At the time, I felt that my parents weren't paying enough attention to me. And I thought I needed attention from somebody."
When Dr. Asensio asked these kids who was the toughest, a teen-ager named Rudy raised his hand.
Rather asked him, "What makes a tough guy?"
Said Rudy, "In my point of view, a tough guy is a gangster. And the people I run my kind of lifestyle, the way I'm going through right now. And that's what I think is tough."
Rather: "Now, in your world, does the tough guy settle trouble with his fists?
Rudy: "Yes, sir."
Rather: "How about a knife?"
Rudy: "If they have it, yes."
Rather: "A gun?"
To reach kids like Rudy, Dr. Asensio knows he can't talk down to them. So he tries to talk just like them.
He tells the kids: "The reason why I communicate with you, and I hope that I can, because I am you. Look at where I came from. And I am very proud to have been born where I was… I came up the hard way, but I stayed on the straight and narrow, and that's very difficult."
Juan Asensio was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1953. His parents – disenchanted with the Castro regime – brought him to the United States when he was just 13. They didn't have a dime. They literally came with the clothes on their backs.
"And we had no money at all. Never did," the doctor recalls. "Neither one of my parents finished grammar school. And we weren't wealthy at all."
Dr. Asensio says his father kept the family together with a series of menial jobs.
"He did what he could to feed his family," he says. "Cleaning, doing anything, doing odds and ends, carrying whatever, till he got this job."
"How proud he must be of you," Rather remarked.
Dr. Asensio's reply: "And how proud I am of my parents."
Dr. Asensio and his parents borrowed the money for college and medical school. His younger brother, Alfredo, who had trouble growing up, went into the Army. Dr. Asensio sometimes talks about Alfredo and even puts his picture up on the screen.
"Well, you know, I lost my brother about 12 years ago, and I still miss him. And I will miss him till I die, OK?" he says. "My kid brother was found assassinated, if you would, gangland style. Found slumped over a car with five gunshot wounds to his head."
A gang situation? "Gangs and drugs and what have you," says the doctor. "And by somehow or another being together with individuals that had also deviated from the straight and narrow, he met his end."
The assassins came?
"Yeah, and I feel that even though he's dead and to me, it's just a wasted life, there is vindication. Because I have so been motivated, inwardly driven to do this, even though I have not spoken about this up till now," explains Dr. Asensio.
And talking in detail about his brother publicly for the first time brought back memories that were overwhelming.
"I know my brother had a lot of goodness within him. And I make no excuses for him," he said tearfully. "But I think sometimes we…need to…give people a better chance."
Dr. Asensio told 60 Minutes II he thinks of his brother every time he talks to a new group of kids. And to save them from his brother's fate, he makes his lectures as graphic, intense and shocking as possible.
"Woman is pregnant, this is the gunshot wound. This is the missile in the uterus, in and out, OK. See, we're teaching you a little reproductive physiology. Here's the child. Want to see it again? Was he in a gang? Did he have any tattoos? Was he the tough guy out there talking crap on the streets?"
What is it like when Dr. Asensio is in the operating room, and he feels that patient slipping away?
"There is a sense there is something that has changed," replies the surgeon. "And it's not the tangible thing that you can describe in any poetic sense. It just is not. But it's there. And it is prevalent. And you know that it's just, it's happening. And you feel a sense of impotence, and you feel a sense of despair."
Death has come to the room?
"Death has come."
So Dr. Asensio tries to keep beating death by talking to kids. The day we visited, his message seemed to be getting through.
Rather asked one of the youths: "What'd you think about what you saw here today?"
Said the teen-ager: "It opened my eyes, too. It's really messed up."
Rather: "What impressed you the most? What did you see up there on the screen or hear the doctor say that you said to yourself, 'Wow. I didn't know that'?"
"There are innocent victims," replied the teen-ager. "That's the baby, that's it. They ain't got nothing to do with it but.. and that's what opened my eyes, too, 'cause that making me realize that the stuff I do is hurting the innocent victims out there, too. And that really opened my eyes a lot."
Dr. Asensio's reaction: "See, now I understand that you are tough, because, hopefully, you're thinking."
Copyright 2002 CBS. All rights reserved.