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The Dignity of Pants

“Please don’t cut off my pants,” he pleaded. “I am homeless and they are my only pants. Please.”

He could say these words as we were conducting our initial assessment in the trauma bay so at least he was hemodynamically stable with an intact airway at that moment in time. However, he had arrived seconds earlier with potentially life threatening injuries as a level 1 trauma activation. Based on the location of wounds that were visible on his torso this was a real possibility so we needed to quickly conduct our secondary assessment. That meant rapid exposure by taking the trauma shears, one on each pant leg from my assistants, as we examined him from head to toe, front to back, in every crevice or crease that might hide a wound.

I looked him straight in the eye and said “Don’t worry. We will get you a pair of pants but right now we have to take care of you.”

Straight in the eye.

He relented. How could he not? The pants were already cut off even as I made eye contact. The process takes just seconds in the hands of a coordinated trauma team.

He was a very polite young man. He didn’t yell or kick or scream. He followed all of our instructions. He quietly told us his health, social, and family history. He told us he was scared. His life story mirrored that of many of our trauma patients: food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, few resources for education and job training, addiction, interpersonal violence, an endless vicious cycle. He was caught in that cycle and it was obvious that he was heartbroken to be there. He wanted a better life and tonight in the trauma bay, without his pants, he had failed once again to break it.

I always say that I was attracted to a career in trauma surgery because I am part surgeon and part social worker. In reality neither I nor the social worker employed by my hospital to help patients in need of socioeconomic support have much to offer our patients with these very real struggles. The policy level changes and investments that would bring grocery options, better schools, safe and affordable housing to our most underserved areas are not in our control. Even for those patients who want to make a change there are too few addiction treatment beds and job training programs. While these issues are clearly predictors of health, they are managed partly (addiction services) or entirely (basically everything else) outside of the healthcare system.

Yet every day we see the ravaging effects of socioeconomic insecurity on our population’s safety and well-being when they become our patients. We open the trauma bay doors and provide the full armamentarium of modern medicine to save a life acutely while feeling powerless to save lives at the societal level*.

We finished examining and working up our patient. He was not going to die that night and could be discharged. Discharged where? It was 3 in the morning. The social worker could give him the address of a shelter in town. There might be a bunk free. She could refer him to addiction treatment. There might be an available bed. A local non-profit might intervene in the light of day if we could make the connection.  But we had no way to guarantee that this man, who was lucky to be alive, would not simply just slip back into his otherwise unlucky life after discharge.

Oh, and there weren’t even any pants to give him. The social worker’s closet of donation was empty of men’s pants it turns out**.

This was not something the trauma team to could bear. We might not be able to provide our patient with better groceries, housing, or addiction treatment to this man who in all of his words and actions as our trauma patient showed us a deep hope to be in a better place in life; but the least we could do is provide him the dignity of a pair of pants to head back into his unfair reality.

So we pooled our cash on hand, asked him what size he wore, and waited until the local Target and Kohl’s opened***. The next morning the light in his face and the sincere words of gratitude when he saw his new jeans and a back up pair of track pants and shorts felt like as much of an accomplishment as stabilizing the unstable patients who had entered the trauma bay earlier or the exploratory laparatomy we had done.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” he said. “I really need these. Thank you.”

He needs so much more. But this was the least we could do.


*NB: Most trauma centers do provide targeted injury prevention like helmet, seat belt, or firearms safety education through small investments or grant funding but these typically address to specific injury mechanisms rather than social policy.
**Men be like the ladies and cull your closets seasonally; donate to your local trauma center.
***If any Kohl’s or Target folks are reading this consider donating items or gift cards to your local trauma center.
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The trouble with discourse that drives us apart in response to a death in the line of duty

My heart sank when I heard the news that a local police officer had been killed in the line of duty. I was not on call that day but I knew exactly what the words “he was taken to a local hospital where he was later pronounced dead” meant. As trauma surgeons we provide care for those injured in senseless, often preventable ways daily. But when an officer is stricken it hurts so deeply because we share a position with them at the forefront of the worst that happens in our society.

So when I heard the news I mourned for the officer, for his family, for his colleagues, for all of law enforcement, and for the people who tried so valiantly to save his life and would forever be asking themselves “was there something else we could have done?”

Let me assure you, there was not.

As with all trauma centers, we have a comprehensive morning report where we discuss all of our new patients: what was the mechanism, how did they present, what was done for the work-up and subsequent treatment? So it was clear that the trauma team did everything they scientifically or physiologically could in this case. In morbidity and mortality* terms, this would be a ‘non-preventable’ death.

Here’s the thing though, of course it was preventable. And we are all (as members of the community, as his brothers and sisters in law enforcement, as representatives of both sides of the criminal justice system, as providers in the healthcare system) asking this same question “why, why did a good man—a good cop, a good husband, a good father, a good son, a good citizen—die this way?”

In a statement to the press less soon after losing her son, the officer’s grief-stricken mother was quoted as saying there is “no respect for police anymore” suggesting perhaps that a pervasive devaluing of law enforcement by society might be at the root of her son’s preventable death. She was no doubt alluding to the national discourse evolving in recent years due to some high profile episodes where the actions of responding officers have been questioned. Some actions have been proven to be criminal by our justice system, as in the case of an Oklahoma City Police Officer who serially raped women he had pulled over, in other cases, however, the facts in support of criminal behavior beyond a reasonable doubt are less clear (e.g., Officer Parker of Madison, AL and Mr. Sureshbhai Patel; or Officer Wilson of Ferguson, MO and Mr. Michael Brown; or Officer Pantaleo of New York, NY and Mr. Eric Garner).

Clarity notwithstanding, there has seemingly been a shift in public rhetoric questioning of infallibility of those on the front lines of law enforcement. Sadly, in some cases the rhetoric has escalated to vitriol, rioting, and even directed acts of violence against law enforcement.  It truly is maddening that a man, fueled by the overarching discourse questioning police intentions and behavior, would then seek an opportunity to kill the police as in the case of Mr. Ismaaiyl Brinsley who gunned down Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos of the NYPD, not during the act of apprehension or while committing another crime, but just because.

However, no matter what the headlines are, the overwhelming majority of our men and women in blue are good men and women who take on their duties with the best of intentions and model professional behavior. And so, when this good man’s mother cites this volatile discourse as a possible cause of his death—as much as my heart breaks for her—it hurts our community by suggesting a local conflict where there was none.

By all accounts, the cop killer in this case was a sociopath lacking any respect for human life or the laws of our society in general as evident by a lengthy record replete with charges ranging from cocaine trafficking, to assault & battery, to weapons possession. Those of us who are not career criminals might get tachycardic or diaphoretic during traffic stops but our natural instinct is to reach for our license & registration, not for our gun. A man with no moral compass felt cornered and so he fired; but, this was no more because he was cornered by an officer than if I had made some gesture to this armed and dangerous criminal during my nightly dog walk.

So, while a family, a profession, and a community mourn, I urge each of us to contemplate how the criminal justice system might have functioned differently to prevent this senseless tragedy but to avoid stoking fired up rhetoric that pits people against the police and police against the people. Discourse that drives us apart stands in the way of viable solutions to combat the socioeconomic and psychological factors that may drive one to a lifetime of crime in the first place and to take those who cannot be rehabilitated off the streets before another preventable death, be it of an ordinary citizen or a man/woman in blue.

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*Morbidity & Mortality, or M&M as it is called is a weekly conference held by surgical teams to review all deaths and complications in an effort to learn more about the systems-based and disease-based processes that led to the adverse outcome.