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Trauma unit doctors at Chicago hospital say declaration of gun violence as public health crisis is overdue

Chicago trauma unit staffers say they see public health crisis of gun violence daily
Chicago trauma unit staffers say they see public health crisis of gun violence daily 03:43

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The U.S. surgeon general's declaration of gun violence a public health crisis comes as no surprise to people who work in the emergency room at Stroger Hospital of Cook County.

The doctors at the hospital saw 771 gunshot victims last year, and their trauma center is one of the busiest in the country.

Stroger Hospital doctors called the public health crisis declaration a long time coming. They also emphasized that gun violence is felt by more than just the gunshot victims they treat directly—which is the approach they say the advisory addresses.

"Cook County has the busiest trauma center in the United States," said Dr. Claudia Fegan, chief medical officer for Stroger Hospital of Cook County. "We were the first trauma center in the United States."

The issue is personal for Dr. Fegan, who has done more than dedicate her life to helping trauma victims. She grew up on the city's South Side, and her own experiences with gun violence paved the way to her decades spent working in the trauma center.

"My parents were injured by gun violence when I was a child. They were held up at gunpoint. My father was shot," Fegan said. "There was a trauma unit that saved his life."

Her take on the landmark advisory issued Tuesday by the U.S. surgeon general?

"It's like long overdue," Fegan said.

More people are shot in Chicago than in New York City and Los Angeles combined.

The gun violence epidemic has also lasted decades in Chicago. Gun-related homicide figures have gone up and down since the 1960s, with at least 300 every year.

For homicides as a whole, the highest total was in 1974 with 970, followed by 1992 with 939. But the peak for gun-related deaths was much more recently—in 2021, with 750.


City data show 2021 was also the worst year in Chicago history for gun-related homicides per 100,000 people, with 27.8. The year 2016 comes in second with 25.659 followed by 2020 with 25.47, and 1994 with 24.82.

Dr. Fegan said treating gunshot victims today is different—and harder.

"The more sophisticated the weapons, the more deadly the weapons, the less likely people are to survive," she said.

She said she is seeing people who have been shot with more deadly weapons more and more often.

"Where you might have been able to sew something back together, there is no tissue left," Fegan said.

The surgeon general advisory points out more children between 1 and 19 die from guns than anything else in the United States. 

"We lost a 7-year-old this past week to gun violence," Fegan said.

The advisory points out that more children between 1 and 19 die from guns than anything else in the United States. This is one reason treatment at Stroger goes beyond medical attention.

"I think our society at large doesn't always see those patients as full complex human beings," said Andy Wheeler, a clinical social worker with the Healing Hurt People Chicago team.

Wheeler has seen it all. He steps in to work with gunshot victims, and their families, while they're being treated here in the hospital—with wraparound services covering everything from violence intervention and mental health care to providing a supportive community.

"I've met grandmothers who were sitting on a park bench who were shot waiting for the bus," Wheeler said. "I've met children who were shot in the back seat of their car while they were driving to school."

Wheeler emphasized that declaring gun violence a public health crisis is a major step.

"Acknowledging that gun violence is a public health issue is one step in the process of working with patients as they heal from their traumatic injury," Wheeler said.

Chicago trauma unit says declaring gun violence a public health crisis is overdue 03:37

The U.S. Surgeon General is calling for the U.S. to ban automatic rifles, introduce universal background checks, pass laws that would restrict their use in public spaces, and penalize people who fail to safely store their weapons in the landmark advisory.

But that is not all. The advisory also says more money needs to be dedicated to firearms research to understand how to reduce and prevent firearm violence—something the people at the Stroger Hospital trauma unit say will make a major difference in Chicago.

"There's been so much lobbying against this that has prevented us from doing the public health—the research to find out what works and what doesn't work," Fegan said.

The landmark advisory from the surgeon general is already being compared to the advisory on cigarettes back in the 1960s—and the major changes seen in tobacco regulation since then. The experts at the Stroger Hospital trauma unit said they hope the advisory on gun violence has the same long-term impact. 

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