Workers in a public safety-net system tend to be service-oriented. I for one, am a volunteer firefighter, physician and a labor union President. In each role, I appreciate the urgency of events – be it a burning building or major flooding; debilitating disease; or empowering my union members. In addition, as a psychiatrist, I believe that the way we relate to any external action is through our own thoughts, beliefs and level of behavioral health. All conditions, from disease to war are influenced through the lens’ of these attributes.
This brings me now to December 2, 2015. I still recall that day as clearly as if it were yesterday. It would have passed like any other day, if not for the unimaginable. I was at our offices that morning in several meetings. Our 1st V.P., Dr. Matthews Hurley, an emergency physician from Harlem Hospital, was returning from a press conference in Washington. D.C. We were lending our support with Doctors for America and other physician groups, in presenting thousands of physician signatures on a petition to Congress requesting a lifting of the CDC ban on gun violence research. How can we begin to assess the problem, if we are forced to bury our heads in the sand? Such a ban, not only makes it difficult to assess the depth of the problem, but makes us blind to it. Are we in the Dark Ages where knowledge is considered heresy? As doctors, we experience first-hand the real effects of gun violence daily. The lives lost, families in mourning and whole communities shattered. As scientists, doctors are avid practitioners of science-driven research and data-collection so as to formulate best practices and further help our patients.
I apologize for dwelling on this moment in time. You see, when a dramatic event occurs, all that is occurring at that very instant becomes melded into one memory. So our stand on funding for gun violence research and the tragedy that occurred at about 11 a.m. that day – the mass shooting at Inland Regional Center, San Bernardino, California- underscore each other.
Memorials built for those who were lost.
By December 7th, I had arrived in San Bernardino. My goal was to assist in the aftermath, with families who either lost loved ones or were injured or traumatized, staff of SEIU Local 721 which suffered greatly being that ten of the fourteen victims were their members, and the entire San Bernardino community. I was immediately drawn into a flurry of activity from meeting with 721 staff and President Schoonover, and International SEIU point people including SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. The empathy and compassion I experienced from my brothers and sisters at 721 and the International was palpable. In everything they did, the focus was to console their members, each other and the community at large. They were willing to go the extra mile, and this was essential. This was very reminiscent of September 11th in New York City. The entire City and country was in it together. People were reaching out and connecting with others, sometimes for the very first time. This extended bond is frequently formed by the spilling of collective blood.
I was impressed with the SEIU response and the manpower and resources utilized so as to provide what the staff and community needed. The candlelight Vigil that evening was both moving and respectful, bringing local faith communities, choirs, community leaders, community groups, counselors, and other SEIU leaders together as one family to pray and remember the victims. SEIU President Henry’s words were a heartfelt appeal to elected leaders to do what was right to work towards a better future. Unlike the divisive rhetoric heard on the airwaves today on immigration, religious bigotry, terrorism, etc.; all I heard and felt that entire week was to love one another, pray, togetherness, respect, family, healing, empathy and compassion. All the key ingredients needed to promote actual healing versus politicizing a tragedy.
My participation at the Memorial at Inland Regional Center daily afterwards continued much of this, but on a much more personal level. This was truly a living Memorial. It symbolized the light in the darkness that could not be extinguished by all the heartbreak. Employees, community residents, pastors, other faith-based groups, and residents from throughout San Bernardino arrived at the Memorial 24/7. They came, silent with heads lowered as if in reflection, some carrying flowers, candles or a simple note or drawing to remember those lost. They were welcomed not by sterile clinicians, law enforcement, or politicians; but brothers and sisters of one vast family. All sharing the same hurt and suffering. A gentle handshake or some words like “hello” or “thank you for coming” started it all. Those simple actions from the heart allowed people to connect, nod, talk, cry or hug. It was what they needed. It was what we all needed, so as not to feel so alone and begin to heal.
In a piece entitled “Physicians experience grief in a different way,” Dr. Corey Michael noted “…. it is not the suffering of patients that has affected me the most. It is the suffering of those left behind, and there is no medical treatment for that.” The suffering of those left behind is why I wanted to help in any way I could to help them through this tragedy. The suffering of those left behind is why I and so many other doctors are passionate about gun violence research. How can we best avoid or prevent these tragedies fur occurring again?
It is difficult to make sense of a tragedy like this at any time. As a doctor, a volunteer firefighter, a leader, a parent, a spouse and a human, I cannot sit by while the status quo remains. That is why I will use advocacy to continue to fight to overturn the ban on gun violence research and to do what is right for our patients and communities. It is why I am proud of my colleagues and members of Doctors Council, such as Dr. Hurley who continue the struggle. It is why I pray for the day that there will be less of these tragedies and a nation and world where we will not have to mourn for those we have lost, but rather help people maintain a healthier life.
I hope for a better 2016 and beyond for all of us and our families. Together, we can work towards making that happen.