Canadian trauma doc in Chicago copes with gunshot victims that just 'roll in, roll in, roll in'
Published Friday, January 17, 2014 7:15AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, January 18, 2014 11:01PM EST
Growing up in Winnipeg's gritty north end, Dr. Matt Kaminsky knew how to stay out of trouble.
His strategy, growing up as an immigrant kid in one of Canada's deadliest cities, was to stay clear of problem houses and groups hanging out on street corners.
Otherwise, he might have earned a "Winnipeg handshake" -- the street term for stabbing -- the most common wound from violent crime Kaminsky encounters as a trauma surgeon at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre.
"Certainly knives represent a large portion of the intentional traumas that people do to each other here in Winnipeg. There are shootings occasionally, as well as vicious beatings, and that entails a certain amount of my work as a trauma surgeon here,"Kaminsky explained.
"Winnipeg overall is very safe, even the rough areas," says the 36-year-old. " Sure, [it's] not a good idea to walk around here alone in the middle of the night probably, but in Chicago, it's a territory for gangs, and there's drive-by shootings and essentially it's all-out warfare that's going on."
Kaminsky knows the situation in Chicago because he also works at Cook County Trauma, one of the oldest and largest trauma units in the US.
In 2012, Chicago police logged 506 homicides and 2,460 shootings, making it the most murderous city in the U.S. A frightening environment for most people, but for a surgeon who admits to being "addicted to trauma," it's the perfect place to hone his skills.
"As a trauma surgeon this is the place that you want to end up. Definitely there are some challenges and stressful moments. But this would be the equivalent of the NHL or the big leagues in terms of where a trauma surgeon can be," Kaminsky said.
As much as Kaminsky savours the rush of life-and-death decision-making, he still finds Chicago "overwhelming at times, especially the amount of gun shots and gunshot victims, when they all come in at once and if there's an outburst of gang violence and retaliation it's not uncommon to have literally dozens of gunshot victims. And they just roll in, roll in, roll in."
One of the many gunshot victims to end up in Kaminsky's ER was Gary Clarke.
In October 2012, Clarke, a long-haul trucker, set off from his home in Courtice, Ont. for Illinois and Wisconsin. The hard-working immigrant from Jamaica expected to be home in time to attend a Sunday service at church with his wife, Sonia, and toddler son, Joash, in just a few days.
The 36-year-old picked up his brother, Andrew Jackson, who joined him on the Wisconsin leg of his trip. Once the deliveries and pick-ups were done, Clarke drove into Chicago to drop Jackson off at his house in the south side community of Englewood.
Initially, Clarke was planning to drive back to Canada, but decided he needed a rest, according to his brother Jackson. Clarke called his other brother, Ricky, to tell him that he'd be staying. Ricky told Clarke to bring the truck over to another part of town, because Englewood was unsafe. But Clarke didn't heed his brother's advice.
Jackson went into the house to deal with a power outage, leaving Clarke alone in his vehicle. Within moments he heard his brother's voice cry out: "The blood of Jesus is against you!"
Jackson looked out the basement window to see strangers surround the truck. One of them had a gun.
"Give me the money! I know you have money!" cried out the gunman.
"I don't have any money," replied Clarke.
Jackson tried to call 911. But he couldn't get a signal in the basement. Then, Jackson says, he heard a "pop" and saw the strangers flee.
Jackson rushed outside looking for Clarke and found him lying on the floor of the cab of his truck. He dialed 911. His brother was unconscious. He shook him, talked to him. No response.
Clarke had been shot in the hip, and was rushed to hospital. Over at Cook County Trauma, Kaminsky was assigned to tend to the Canadian.
"He came in what was called triple zero: no pulse, not breathing, no vitals," Kaminsky explained, "that's a situation that has a dismal prognosis."
Clarke was pronounced dead. But from a hip wound?
Once they're inside our bodies, bullets don't travel straight lines, Dr. Kaminsky explained. "If he hits the deck and is shot lying down, the bullet can take a devastating course through the body, bounce off a bone... although it looks like it's straight into the hip, it's angled straight up into the abdomen and through the heart or up into the chest."
A year has passed since Gary Clarke was killed, and Sonia Clarke draws strength from the support provided by the brothers and sisters of Apostolic Pentecostal Church.
Speaking through tears, Sonia says she regrets not being able to say good-bye to Gary. She has questions about what exactly happened in Chicago, but ultimately blames the cavalier attitude towards guns for Gary's death.
"People believe that guns are toys. And guns are not really toys…I would not let my son play with a gun. I would not buy a gun for my son, even before this incident, because guns are not toys. They take lives."
Kevin Eason, 16, was charged with Clarke's murder. The teen reportedly embarked on a life of violent crime at the age of 12, and Clarke's murder is the second he has been charged with. The Chicago Tribune reported that Eason was on probation at the time of Clarke's murder.
A year after Clarke's murder, Kaminsky is back at Cook County Trauma for a few shifts. Despite frigid temperatures, local media report seven shootings overnight on the first Saturday in December 2013, including one fatality.
Three of the victims are brought to Cook County and Kaminsky operates on one. The man is lucky to be alive: an x-ray reveals a bullet narrowly missed piercing his esophagus and major neck arteries.
Nevertheless, the man requires immediately surgery.
"Whenever you have stuff around the airway it's serious business, because he could be literally OK one second and 30 seconds later could be asphyxiated," Kaminsky says.
Trauma surgery like this is precisely what Kaminsky spent years training for and it's what keeps him returning to ER shifts at Cook County Hospital.
Still, there are things Kaminsky can't get used to. Some of his patients return, shot up once again.
"It happens very often here that your incision scar to go into the abdomen is a redo type of work and you were there six months earlier." Surrounded by death and senseless suffering, Kaminsky is very matter-of-fact about how he copes.
"I wasn't the one that went and shot them. I did everything I did, and could do, to save them."
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