It’s not what a typical medical student thinks of when they choose pediatrics as their field. But it’s now part of Dr. Bradley Stolbach’s career in children’s health care: gunshot wounds. Also stabbings and blunt force trauma inflicted by bricks, baseball bats and “pretty much anything that people can use to hurt someone with,” he said.
Those injuries clearly leave their physical marks. But the wounds Stolbach treats go deeper.
He is co-director of Healing Hurt People, a violence prevention program with two Chicago locations including University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital, where Stolbach treats patients age 18 and younger. Meanwhile, Carol Reese directs the Stroger Hospital branch, which expands beyond pediatrics to patients as old as 30.
“In our hospital alone, we saw almost a thousand violently injured folks in 2020,” Reese said. “People spend a lot of time understanding the physical impacts and physical recovery,” she noted, adding that only in recent decades, though, have doctors learned more about violent crime’s invisible injuries: wounds to the psyche.
Healing Hurt People (HHP) kicks in when a staff member provides a patient with “basic psychoeducation about trauma” and how to cope with it, said Stolbach. “Someone will approach them almost immediately, as soon as they are conscious and not in medical emergency.”
A Key Driver of Violence
A youth who’s been shot, for instance, might learn about post- traumatic stress disorder symptoms that include unexpected flashbacks or sudden surges of anger. Stolbach said “untreated psychological trauma is a key driver of violence,” partly because the patient may react to a “perceived threat” that actually isn’t there.
Many of those with violence injuries come from high-crime neighborhoods and once patients are released, HHP offers on-going therapeutic support and assistance with school, jobs and other issues, to help them escape that violent world. Less than a third of injured patients participate in the program, but some stay with it for months or even years.
The idea came from Philadelphia, starting here in 2013. It began partly because doctors who struggled to save young lives had been frustrated to see those youths return with new injuries to treat.
Statistics are startling: “Looking at the re-injury research over the years, the Centers for Disease Control says that 45% roughly of people with a violent injury are going to be re-injured within five years,” said Stolbach, “and about 20% are going to be killed within five years.”
Meanwhile, a study at Comer has found that 16% of youths ages 14 and 15 treated there for gunshot wounds were admitted again for gunshot wounds within two years, if they hadn’t participated in HHP, said Stolbach. For HHP participants of those ages, that dropped to 7%.
Stolbach also said about 90% of patients who’ve worked with HHP for six months or longer avoided re-injury and haven’t been involved in retaliation or charged with other crimes.
About 60% showed reduced substance use, he said, and 75 to 80% had decreased symptoms of PTSD and depression.
HHP costs about $5,000 per year per patient, while hospital costs for a gunshot wound could reach “easily over $100,000.” That, Stolbach contended, makes Healing Hurt People well worth it.