Emergency Room Doctor

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed on KCRW.

You've probably been hearing that, after several years of improving numbers, the murder rate in Los Angeles has jumped. By 27 percent.

Gangs are slaughtering each other. And -- worse -- people with no involvement picked randomly off the street.

Last Sunday night in Long Beach, the epidemic visited the family of Jose Luis Garcia Bailey. Somebody walked up and shot him in the chest.

At St. Mary Medical Center, trauma surgeon Maurico Heilbron Jr. got the call to save Jose.

Not long after, Dr. Heilbron sat down and wrote the most powerful Op-Ed piece I've read this year. It ran Tuesday in the Long Beach Press Telegram.

"I just finished sewing up a dead boy," he began.

"I pronounced him dead at 10:34 p.m. Sunday. It's now 11:27 p.m. I know I won't be able to get to sleep for a long time. I feel like I shouldn't.

"I was sulking in my call room on Palm Sunday because I missed yet another important moment in my 5-year-old son's life.

"A tarantula crawled all over him at his best friend's birthday party, and my wife had e-mailed me a glorious photo of this big, hairy arachnid on my son's face."

"The phone rings, and I'm summoned to the ER for ... a gunshot wound to the chest."

The emergency room secretary adds –- it's a child.

On his way to the ER, Dr. Heilbron plays out the possible scenarios in his head. All are horrific, but it helps prepare him.

He continues:

"I arrive to a room filled to capacity with doctors, nurses, techs, volunteers, firemen, policemen and paramedics.

"The strictly medical people are swarming around an impossibly small figure, in a flurry of needle sticks in search of a vein.

"Stethoscopes vainly searching for a breath sound or a heartbeat.

"The non-medical personnel had formed a concerned and curious peanut gallery. One ER doctor blurts out the important points, 'GSW to the chest, pulses in the field...'

"The ER doctor hands me the knife, as if to say, ‘Here. It's yours.' I think the kid is dead, or if not dead, then he certainly is 'unsalvageable' -- a horrible word to use for a human being.

"I don't think he's fixable."

Heilbron knows that cracking open the chest of an 11-year-old boy will shred his own heart. But he slips on the gloves and takes the knife.

The boy's chest cavity is filled with blood. And with all the fluids the ER personnel have been pumping in. There's nothing to be done, except to bring in the family and let them observe the end steps.

Studies have shown that this helps them. But at that moment, it doesn't show. A howl of unimaginable grief shakes the entire ER.

Dr. Heilbron is filled with anger. Why do we still sell guns in this country? What is this child doing on the streets after 10 o'clock?

Why are we killing our innocent young soldiers overseas, and ignoring the merciless gangbangers at home?

He begins to cry. He sews up what he can, whispers the words I'm sorry to the boy's mother.

After he cleans up, Dr. Heilbron decides he can't do this any more. He just wants to go home, sit on the floor and watch his own son sleep.

But he can't go home. It's only 11:27. He's on call until 8 a.m.

Tomorrow he has patients, surgeries, rounds -- the usual stuff.

Hopefully, he writes, he'll be home for dinner.

Dr. Mauricio Heilbron Jr. is the chief of surgery at Little Company of Mary Hospital in San Pedro. And a trauma surgeon at St. Mary.

You can find a link to his piece at KCRW.com or at LA Observed.com.

For KCRW this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.