Doctor fights an epidemic of violence

Hopkins surgeon works to show the harsh reality, results of gang life

`Somebody has to try'

August 16, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

The trauma surgeon is about to begin his shift with a visit to a new patient, a 22-year-old man, admitted just hours earlier after being shot four times during another episode of Baltimore street violence.

The chart outside the man's room doesn't look good; a bullet struck his spine and paralysis is all but certain.

Before walking into the room, the doctor gathers himself. His plan is to lay the bedside manner on thick and put the patient at ease because the news he is about to deliver can't be easy to take.

But as Dr. Edward E. Cornwell walks into the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency room on this March evening, it is the doctor who is startled - for this isn't a new patient, but one he has previously treated.

"Hey, Dr. Cornwell," said Tijuan Robinson, lying stiff on a bed and unable to move his lower extremities, speaking up as if he just ran into an old friend. "They say it is bad this time." The doctor is speechless, frustrated, angry and motivated.

For years now, Cornwell has striven to save as many lives speaking out against violence as he does with his scalpel. His latest and most ambitious undertaking in his anti-violence campaign is developing a video he hopes will be used as a public service announcement.

He's splicing music videos that depict violence with actual footage of hospital-room carnage, one scene showing him tending to a lifeless body that just arrived in the emergency room who he calls Male Z. The message and raw images on his video are intended to drive a wedge between Hollywood and reality.

"These kids out here don't know the difference," said Cornwell, chief of adult trauma surgery at Hopkins. "That's the problem."

The video is still in the works and about five minutes long at this point. He hopes to get it on television and distribute it to national help agencies. Last month, he presented a rough cut of the video during his speech at a Children's Defense Fund meeting in Tennessee.

Since 1998, Cornwell has crusaded in Baltimore against gun violence - the very incidents that have made him a highly regarded practitioner at one of the nation's best hospitals, which happens to be located minutes from some of the city's deadliest shooting galleries.

The irony is akin to a dentist rooting against tooth decay. But Cornwell says doctors "should be trying to put ourselves out of business."

`We have to reach them'

He is passionate about this cause and says he is trying to fill a void that has been ignored by so many others.

While the number of homicides in Baltimore was down last year from four years earlier, Cornwell says the number of emergency room visits for shootings is rising.

The way he sees it, gun violence is an epidemic and a generation is but a fraction of itself because of it.

"Once they get here, it's too late to be talking about anti-violence messages to them. We have to reach them before they get here, before they become a victim," Cornwell said from his sixth-floor office on the Hopkins medical campus. "But nobody is doing it, everybody is afraid. But somebody has to try. Why not a trauma surgeon?"

Cornwell, 47, is a Washington native and the son of a surgeon. He decided to pursue a career in medicine when he was 18 after receiving a cornea transplant and marveling at the good that doctors could do. In 2000, he was featured in Hopkins 24/7, an ABC television documentary.

Before coming to Hopkins in 1998, he worked as a trauma surgeon in Los Angeles. While there he witnessed the gang shootings that set him on an anti-violence path.

Since coming to Baltimore, the Ellicott City resident has written about treating gunshot wounds for trade publications and has become a sought-after speaker, giving him a platform for his cause.

He is now carrying that message from the insular operating rooms where his captive audience often consists of dejected - but not necessarily remorseful - patients and trying to get on the airwaves.

What is unique about Cornwell's effort is that he wants to work independent of the hospital, said Dave Chang, a research associate for Hopkins' Department of Surgery and a former student of Cornwell.

"I think most people who have done this have tried to focus on hospital-based programs. It's like trying to teach people to swim from the bottom of the pool," Chang said. "True prevention has to take place from outside a hospital. What happens out there is more important than what happens in here, and Dr. Cornwell knows that."

To that end, Cornwell has worked for the past few years with Baltimore police Officer Fred Allen, who oversees a youth program in East Baltimore.

Cornwell visits with children in the community and shows them horrific pictures of gunshot wounds while giving anti-violence talks.

Sometimes they can't handle the images they see, turning away from the pictures or averting their eyes, peeking through slits between their fingers.

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