Fighting to save child gunshot victims in St. Louis

There are only two places on earth where children are regularly wounded or killed by gunfire: war zones, and the United States of America.

“He was just another 17 year old in north St. Louis, walking with friends to school,” said author Stu Durando.  “Some other kids came out of an alley and he and his friends just tried to keep moving and going to school, thus he was shot in the back.”

The 17-year old was rushed to Children’s Hospital, where a team of over a dozen doctors, nurses, and technicians fought to stabilize him and determine which internal organs might have been damaged by the slug and the shock wave that runs ahead of a bullet travelling at 680 miles per hour.

He was taken to the operating room. The bullet was removed. No internal organs were permanently damaged. He recovered, at least physically. His mother said she intended to move somewhere, anywhere, away from the gunfire. The trauma center at Children’s Hospital had saved another life, another in an endless stream of children with gunshot wounds that flow into their emergency room on Kingshighway, sometimes one a week, sometimes a half-dozen a day.

Their struggle to save kids caught in the crossfire of America’s gun pathology is the focus of a new book, “Under The Gun: A children’s hospital on the front line of an American crisis”, by Post-Dispatch reporter and sportswriter Stu Durando, who spent six years following the doctors and young gunshot victims whose lives intersected in the urgent but businesslike frenzy of the Children’s Hospital trauma center.

Under The Gun” focuses on gunshot victims and their families, and on Children’s Hospital trauma director Dr. Martin Keller and his staff, both professionally and personally.

“A lot of them express obvious frustration over just the inability to slow this down,” said Durando. “And that frustration can lead to anger, but if you’re there long enough, I think you get accustomed to it. But they do have a big turnover in staff. It’s a lot of pressure.”

After peaking at around 100 under-21 gunshot victims a year around 2008, the number of emergency gunshot trauma cases at Children’s started tailing off, only to spike again in late 2014, around the time of the Ferguson unrest. No one’s sure if the two are related, but since then, Children’s sees an average of around 85 young gunshot victims a year. Among the victims under age 16, one-third are accidental shootings.

“One story I tell is about 12 year old boy in University City who left his house to go to a friend’s house at four-thirty one afternoon,” said Durando. “His Mom had police at the door about two hours later telling her he’d been shot, and driving her to Children’s to be told her son was dead because the boys had found a gun on Grandpa’s bed.”

The youngest victim in the book was six, one of many airlifted to Children’s from around the state. “A girl who was shot was airlifted to Children’s from Springfield, Missouri,” Durando said. “Her brother took a shotgun off the wall in her parent’s bedroom, was playing with it, it was loaded, and he shot her in the midsection.”

Despite massive injuries, she survived.

While Durando’s book exhaustively chronicles the victims, the medical professionals, the parents, and the social workers all struggling to reduce the carnage and get on with their lives amidst the violence, it stays away from the issue of guns themselves, and how so many weapons, from grandpa’s unsecured shotgun to an angry young man’s nine millimeter pistol, are easily available and easily used to harm children.

That weakness in the book may actually be a strength. Durando is giving us a hard look at the human stories and bloody consequences of guns on children. After looking, it’s up to us to decide why we’re letting our children be wounded or killed in the kind of regular and repeated gun violence that no other country experiences.

Charles Jaco

Author: Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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