A Trauma Surgeon Who Survived Gun Violence Is Taking On The NRA

Nov 28, 2018
Originally published on December 3, 2018 8:43 am

For trauma surgeon Joseph Sakran, gun violence is a very personal issue. He has treated hundreds of gun wound victims, comforted anxious loved ones and told mothers and fathers that their children would not be coming home.

But Sakran's empathy for his patients and their families extends beyond the hospital. Sakran knows the pain of gun violence because he is a survivor of it; when he was 17, he took a bullet to the throat after a high school football game.

Maybe that's why he felt the need to do something when the NRA tweeted on Nov. 7, "Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane," in response to the American College of Physicians' position paper on reducing firearm injuries and deaths.

"My first reaction was kind of incensed," Sakran says of the NRA's tweet. Then, he sprang into action, creating the Twitter account @ThisIsOurLane and encouraging other medical professionals to share their experiences treating victims of gun violence.

Some of the responses have been graphic, but Sakran, who is director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, says that helps drive home the point: "By seeing a lot of these photos of bloodstained scrubs or by seeing an operating room floor full of blood or an empty waiting room, it's made it real."

When it comes to gun violence, Sakran says, "a lot of times people talk about statistics and numbers, but I think it's so important to move beyond that, because these aren't just numbers — these are people. These are fathers, mothers, members of the community that we interact with day in and day out."


Interview Highlights

On being shot in the throat when he was 17

It was after a high school football game where we were just hanging out with some friends the way typical high school students do, and we were at a park at a nearby elementary school when a fight had broken out between two individuals, and a guy pulled out a gun and started firing into the crowd. At that point I got hit in the throat with a .38-caliber bullet.

And I remember that night actually pretty vividly for a variety of reasons, but one of which I was wearing white that night, and very quickly I noticed that I had blood all over my shirt and pants, and as I made my way to the curb my friends were frantically trying to figure out where I had been hit. And then they saw the spurting of blood from my windpipe. ...

It might sound a little bit crazy, but it was almost as if I was watching myself and I was watching the pre-hospital workers put IVs in me, ask me different questions, almost like an out-of-body experience. ... They were having to perform an emergency tracheostomy, which is providing a secure airway, because I had a ruptured windpipe.

On the stress his family went through when he was shot

I am the victim in this, but now looking back at it even as as the victim I still have a sense of guilt that [I] put [my] parents and family through something that has to be just so stressful. And I think about it often. I say I probably cut 10 years off of their life. I can't imagine when they initially got the call that, "Your son has been injured please come to the hospital." They didn't tell them exactly what happened. And so you can imagine the surprise when they show up to the hospital and they say to them "Your son's been shot." ...

I often think about this in regards to kind of what I do on a daily basis, and I always tell people the worst part of my job is going out to those waiting rooms and having to talk to families and tell them that their loved one is never coming home.

On deciding to become a trauma surgeon

There was a very profound moment that happened during my recovery period that changed how I thought about what had just happened. I was standing in the bathroom looking at the mirror and I was looking at the scars that I had. At that point I still had the tracheostomy tube, and my father happened to be walking by and kind of peeked in. I think he saw the distraught look on my face and ... he said, "What happened was horrible, and either you can look at your scars and the tube that you have in your neck and feel sorry for yourself, or you can take this second opportunity and really make a difference for other people." And it was that moment that really I think changed me for the rest of my life.

On how his experience helps him talk to families of the victims of gun violence

It's never easy. It's by far the worst part of my job, but it's part of my job. I think having been a victim and now a provider I have a unique experience and I think one of the things I always try to do is to have empathy. I think that it's very different than sympathy — really being able to kind of put yourself in their shoes and what they must be feeling and going through.

When I walk out there to talk to these families, I often will just kind of stand there for a little bit and just look through the waiting glass window, and it's difficult. Sometimes I know that what I'm about to do is going to completely change your life. And I look at their faces and ... these are all mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers that obviously care for this person who has just been injured. And so I try to be as empathetic as possible, and provide them with as comprehensive as possible a detail of what just took place.

On sharing his personal story with patients

I often do share this story with my patients and families later on if they're lucky enough to have survived. I use that in a variety of different ways. But some patients will look at me and think, "OK, what does this person understand about gun violence?" When I tell them my story, it allows me to relate to what they've just been through, but also what they've seen from so many years in their own community.

On what he sees as the priorities for gun policy change

I think there would be really three things: The first is expanding universal background checks. The second is ensuring that we have federal funding to provide data-driven solutions. And the third is focus on safe storage and education.

Therese Madden and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Scott Hensley adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The NRA seems to have unintentionally mobilized many members of the medical community to voice their support for gun safety. Here's what happened. Earlier this month, the American College of Physicians published a position paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine recommending ways to reduce firearm injuries and deaths in the U.S. In response to that article, the NRA tweeted (reading) someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.

That led my guest, Dr. Joseph Sakran, to tweet this - (reading) as a trauma surgeon and survivor of gun violence, I cannot believe the audacity of the NRA to make such a divisive statement. We take care of these patients every day. Where are you when I'm having to tell all those families their loved one has died?

Sakran started the Twitter handle @ThisIsOurLane, which led thousands of doctors, nurses and other people in the medical community to use #ThisIsOurLane as a hashtag to explain why gun violence is a medical issue. Sakran has treated hundreds of gun wound victims. He's the director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He decided to become a trauma surgeon after he was shot in the neck after attending a high school football game when he was 17. In 2014, he received the American College of Surgeons Resident Volunteer Award for his work in numerous disaster relief efforts and in low and middle-income countries. He also serves on the board of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Dr. Joseph Sakran, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I'm so glad - let me just say I'm so glad you survived being shot yourself and went on to save so many other people's lives. Let's start by acknowledging that. So I want to ask you about starting the @ThisIsOurLane Twitter handle, so I'll read the full quote from the NRA - from the NRA tweet that led to your Twitter handle. The NRA wrote (reading) someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted no one but themselves.

And no one is in capital letters. What was your first reaction when you read that tweet?

JOSEPH SAKRAN: Well, honestly, my first reaction, I was kind of incensed, to be honest with you. The fact that an organization would think that the medical community, health care professionals, individuals that take care of these patients day in, day out, had no role in being part of the solution I think showed to me, the rest of the medical community and, frankly, to Americans all across this country that they're not serious about really moving the needle forward on this issue.

GROSS: You tweeted in response (reading) we take care of these patients every day. Where are you when I'm having to tell all those families that their loved one has died?

How long did it take you to write that? I mean, how - what did you think when you were composing that that you needed to say? And did you edit it? Do you know what I'm saying?

SAKRAN: No, I know exactly what you're saying.

GROSS: Did you know that it would have impact? Yeah.

SAKRAN: Well, honestly, it was a visceral response. It's not like I sat there, you know, crafting it. It just came from my heart. And it's what I felt at the moment. And I was really, you know, just couldn't believe the fact that someone or an organization would make that type of comment considering how involved we are with these patients on a daily basis.

GROSS: So when you created the @ThisIsOurLane Twitter handle in response to the NRA's tweet to doctors that they should stay in their lane, were you thinking of the impact of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, which helped, you know, launch movements?

SAKRAN: Well, that definitely crossed my mind. And I really created it in order to build a platform that could bring the conversation, you know, under one umbrella, so to speak. And I think, honestly, Terry, what's important is that this isn't just non-gun-owning, you know, doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists. These are also gun owners that are clinicians that have come together and said, no, we do have a role in this.

GROSS: Some of the doctors who have used the #ThisIsOurLane hashtag to tweet have taken selfies of their own bloodstained scrubs after treating shooting victims. Some have tweeted pictures of bloodstained floors in the ER after treating shooting victims. What are some of the most moving things that you've read that have used that hashtag?

SAKRAN: Yeah. So I've seen a lot of these pictures that you're referring to. You know, by seeing a lot of these, you know photos, of bloodstained scrubs or by, you know, seeing an operating room floor full of blood or an empty waiting room, it's made it real. It's made it very personal and - because a lot of times, you know, people talk about statistics and numbers, but I think it's so important to move beyond that because these aren't just numbers. These are people. And so it really, I think, provided that human touch, which, you know, the public often doesn't get a chance to see.

GROSS: You became a trauma surgeon because you were shot when you were a senior in high school. You were shot in the throat. Can you describe the incident that led to that shooting, whatever you know about that incident? And I don't even - I don't know how much you know about who shot you and why they pulled out a gun.

SAKRAN: Yeah. So I was a 17-year-old high school student, you know, I would say typically living, you know, a normal, you know, childhood and upbringing, born to immigrant parents who, you know, really I think taught us a lot about work ethic and tried to give us so much so that we could, you know, live that American dream, so to speak. And when, you know, that incident happened when I was 17, it really changed my life.

GROSS: What happened? Describe the incident.

SAKRAN: Yeah. So it was after a high school football game where we were just, you know, hanging out with some friends the way, you know, typical high school students do. And we were at a park at a nearby elementary school when a fight had broken out between two individuals, and a guy pulled out a gun and started firing into the crowd. And at that point, I got hit in the throat with a .38-caliber bullet. And I remember that night actually pretty vividly for a variety of reasons but, you know, one of which I was wearing white that night, and very quickly I noticed that I had blood all over my shirt and pants. And as I made my way to the curb, my friends were, you know, frantically trying to figure out where I had been hit. And then, you know, they saw the spurting of blood from my windpipe. And at that point, folks had called 911 and the EMS and actually the medevac were en route to pick me up.

GROSS: It sounds like you didn't know that you were hit or at least you didn't know where you were hit.

SAKRAN: Yeah, that's correct. You know, everything happened so quickly that you're still trying to process and comprehend what's going on. And it was really - it was really difficult at first to know what had happened. No one expects, you know, in Burke, Va., to be shot - a relatively, you know, safe area you would think. And, you know, when it happened and I realized something was not right, people, you know, I think were pretty frantic trying to figure out what happened and what are the next steps to try to help me out.

GROSS: Once you realized that you were shot in the throat, did you panic?

SAKRAN: Honestly, I was in shock. The - both the EMS and the medevac actually had arrived relatively quickly, and I couldn't lay down flat because when they laid me down flat, I was starting to choke on my blood. And so they couldn't take me by the police medevac because at that time in that chopper you had to be flat in order to be transported. And so I was transported by EMS to Inova Fairfax Hospital. And, you know, Terry, that was a very interesting experience. And it might sound a little bit crazy, but it was almost as if I was watching myself and I was watching the pre-hospital workers, you know, put IVs in me, you know, ask me different questions, almost like an out-of-body experience.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon who's treated hundreds of gun shooting victims. He's the director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET'S "MIGRATIONS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with trauma surgeon Dr. Joseph Sakran, director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In response to the NRA's recent tweet - someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane - Sakran started the Twitter handle, this is our lane. It's led to thousands of tweets with the #ThisIsOurLane from people in the medical community who see gun violence as a medical issue. Sakran was a victim of gun violence when he was 17 and was shot in the throat after attending a high school football game.

So getting back to what happened to you, did you think you were dying?

SAKRAN: Well, you know, when the incident happened, I was in shock. And it was almost as if everything was going in slow motion. And when I got into the trauma center, my surgeon - I remember this so clearly. He had come into the trauma bay. And he looked at all the commotion and the chaos going on. And he said, you know, what in the - are you guys doing? And he unlocked the gurney and actually wheeled me to the operating room. I'll never forget that. And when I got to the operating room...

GROSS: Can I just stop you there? Why did he...

SAKRAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Say that? What was he reacting to?

SAKRAN: I think he was reacting to the fact that, you know, here's a kid that's been shot in the throat. You know, these traumatic resuscitations can be nerve-wracking to begin with. But I think, you know, when you have a young kid with such a serious injury and he hadn't arrived yet, there can be a lot of different thoughts about, sometimes, the best way to proceed. And I think that was something that was actively going on when he walked in. Again, I'm not privy to some of the conversations that they were having. But I assume that what he saw he didn't really think was going to be in my best interest. And he really took control and took charge of the situation.

GROSS: So what did he do?

SAKRAN: So he unlocked the gurney. He wheeled me to the operating room. And when we got to the operating room, I remember he, you know, stood up above me. And he said, listen. He said, Joe, I have to do this to save your life. And I remember at that point - you know, I passed out at that point. And the next thing I remember was waking up the next day at 12 o'clock in the intensive care unit. And I remember that time specifically because I had just gotten my first job, actually. I was going to be working at this pet center. And I remember that I was supposed to start that Saturday at 12 o'clock. And I woke up, and the first thing I saw was the clock. And I said, oh, man. I'm like, I'm late for work.

GROSS: Wow (laughter).

SAKRAN: So it's kind of funny the things that go through your mind.

GROSS: Yeah. So when the surgeon said to you, you know, I'm sorry, Joe. But I have to do this to save your life. What was it he was doing that he knew would be upsetting?

SAKRAN: Well, they were having to perform an emergency tracheostomy, which is providing a secure airway because I had a ruptured windpipe. And I was, you know, bleeding. And so he had to - you know, one of the first things that we do - I didn't know at that time but now as a trauma surgeon - is really try to secure the airway to ensure that we're able to provide oxygen to our patients.

GROSS: So when you came to and you thought, oh, I'm late for work (laughter), what was your second thought after that when you realized what had actually happened to you?

SAKRAN: So after I noticed that, then, you know, I kind of looked around the room. And I saw, you know, my parents and my brother and sister that were there in the room. And I could clearly tell by looking at their faces that I had put them through hell.

GROSS: You had put them - you're making it sound like you were the actor in this. You were the victim in this. You were, like, the passive person in this.

SAKRAN: Well, I mean, you know, look. I am the victim in this. But, you know, now, you know, looking back at it, even as the victim, I still, you know, have a sense of, you know, guilt that you put your parents and family through something that, you know, has to be just so stressful. And, you know, I think about it often. I say, you know, I probably cut 10 years off of their life. I can't imagine, you know, when they initially got the call that, oh, your son has been injured. Please come to the hospital. They didn't tell them exactly what had happened. And so you can imagine the surprise when they show up to the hospital and they say to them, your son's been shot.

GROSS: Oh, they didn't even know you were shot until you got to the hospital.

SAKRAN: No. And so, you know, Terry, I often think about this in regards to kind of what I do on a daily basis. And I always tell people, you know, the worst part of my job is going out to those waiting rooms and having to talk to, you know, families and tell them that their loved one is never coming home.

GROSS: How does your experience and your parents' experience affect how you tell parents, siblings, other loved ones that the person who they're close to has been shot or perhaps killed by gun violence?

SAKRAN: Well, it's never easy. It's, by far, the worst part of my job. But it's part of my job. And I think having been a victim and now a provider, I have a unique experience. And I think one of the things I always try to do is to have empathy. And I think that's very different than sympathy. You know, really being able to kind of put yourself in their shoes and what they must be feeling and going through. And you know, when I walk out there to talk to these families, I often will, you know, just kind of stand there for a little bit and just look through the waiting glass window. And it's difficult.

Sometimes I know that, you know, what I'm about to do is going to completely change their life. And I look at their faces, and I, you know - these are all, you know, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers that, you know, obviously care for this person that's just been injured. And so I try to be as empathetic as possible and provide them, you know, with, as comprehensive as possible, you know, a detail of what just took place.

GROSS: How honest are you if the person's in really bad shape?

SAKRAN: I'm very honest. I mean, there's nothing, you know, easy about it. But I think, you know, there's nothing worse than, you know, giving false hope. Because families, you know, will cling on to that. I try to be as objective and straightforward as possible because I think, you know, families deserve that. And even though it literally takes every ounce of strength to do that, I am just so impressed by the resilience and the humanity of people.

There's this recent memory that I had of a patient we took care of that died, and he was shot in the back of the head. And the mother was there in the room, and we had just told her that her son was dead, and that the injury was nonsurvivable. And she was telling us how he had just graduated high school, you know, was planning to go to college.

And I think she could see on our faces how distraught we were, as well. And she walked up to me and grabbed my hand and said, you know, are you OK? And I just, you know, thought to myself, you know, that is amazing. Here is a mother that just lost her son, and she's asking us if we're OK. You know, it's those type of interactions that you never forget and that really kind of give me faith in the humanity that we have.

GROSS: My guest is trauma surgeon Dr. Joseph Sakran, director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After a break, we'll talk about his recovery after being shot and what he knows about the shooter. Also, John Powers will review a new novel on Publisher's Weekly's list of the 10 best books of the year. I'm Terry Gross, and This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN SONG, "FINAL HOUR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with trauma surgeon Dr. Joseph Sakran, director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In response to the NRA's recent tweet - someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane - Sakran started the Twitter handle @thisisourlane. It's led to thousands of tweets with the hashtag #thisisourlane from people in the medical community who see gun violence as a medical issue. Sakran was a victim of gun violence when he was 17 and was shot in the throat, after attending a high school football game. Surviving the shooting and his gratitude for the trauma surgeons who saved him inspired Sakran to become a trauma surgeon.

When you're telling people that their loved one has been shot and describing the medical condition that they're in, do you ever share your story as the victim of a shooting?

SAKRAN: So I won't often share that in - when I'm initially discussing what's taken place in the waiting room after I finished operating on someone. Because there's so much going on that the only thing that they're concerned about is their loved one. But I often do share the story with my patients and families later on if they're lucky enough to have survived. And I use that in a variety of different ways. But, you know, some patients will look at me and think - you know, OK, what does this person understand about gun violence? And when I tell them my story, it allows me to relate to what they've just been through but also what they've seen from, you know, so many years in their own community.

And, you know, Terry, I never realized the importance of my own story. And I was actually in Philadelphia in 2011 when I first realized how impactful it could be. I was a fellow at the trauma center at Penn. And we would bring high school students from, you know, the surrounding area, underserved communities. And we'd give them a tour of the trauma center. And after we would give them a tour, I would sit down and I would talk to them about gun violence. And the first time I did this - the high school students, you know, typically - you know, they're young. They're 14, 15 years old. They're kind of paying attention but not really.

And then I tell them my story. And all of the sudden, all their eyeballs are focused on me. And I was surprised. I was taken back. I couldn't really comprehend what had just happened. And I said to them, how many of you in here have experienced gun violence yourself or within your own families indirectly? And nearly every one of them raised their hands. And so it was such a powerful moment because what it did was it showed me that I went from being this, you know, doctor in a white coat to someone that actually understood what was going on in their community. And it allowed me to relate.

GROSS: What do you know about the person who shot you? Were they ever tried for the crime? Did they do time? Did you ever meet them?

SAKRAN: Yeah. So they did catch the person that shot me. He was a minor at the time and - my understanding - was an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. He was prosecuted, you know, in Virginia and did the maximum allotted time and then was deported after he was released.

GROSS: Did you ever meet him?

SAKRAN: No, I did not ever meet him.

GROSS: You mentioned that the person who shot you was here illegally from El Salvador. And he was deported after he shot you. For some people listening now, that might lead them to think, see. It is true that people who are here illegally are often criminals and commit violent crimes. And that's an argument for tightening immigration laws and tightening the border with Mexico. And I wonder if you share that concern and how you would address that being the victim in this case.

SAKRAN: Well, I think when you look at the majority of immigrants in our country, what you'll find is that the majority of them are really good people that work really hard, that try to do the right thing. You have, obviously, a portion of the population - both immigrants, non-immigrants, illegal and legal - that are not going to do the right thing and that may be criminals and that may behave in ways that's unbecoming of society. And so I don't think we can stereotype the entire population based on one incident. And I say that being a victim of gun violence by someone who was an illegal immigrant.

GROSS: Let's get back to your experience having been shot. What was your recovery like?

SAKRAN: So I was, you know, in the hospital for quite a bit of time. I want to say over a month. And I had a tracheostomy tube for about six months. I went home with that. And, you know, after getting home, you have to kind of - you know, once you've been in the hospital for so long, you're learning how to do some of the basic, you know, activities of daily living, you know, like learning how to, you know, eat again and walk. And I have a paralyzed left vocal cord. So, you know, that was part of, you know, the rehabilitation as well. And I was still undergoing multiple operations to remove scar tissue from within my windpipe.

The other piece is I had missed a significant amount of my senior year in high school. And so I had to undergo home schooling in order to catch up so I could rejoin my class. So there was really kind of the physical, you know, stuff that was going on and then, you know, all the other background stuff that I needed to take care of.

GROSS: So you could have been emotionally, physically, even intellectually crippled by this experience and the trauma of it. But instead, you decided you wanted to become a trauma surgeon and save lives like your life was saved. How did you reach that conclusion? I mean, I don't think most gun victims decide that they're going to be surgeons.

SAKRAN: There is a very profound moment that happened during my recovery period that changed how I thought about what had just happened. I was standing in the bathroom, looking at the mirror. And I was looking at the scars that I had. And I, at that point, still had the tracheostomy tube. And my father happened to be walking by and kind of peeked in. And I think he saw the distraught, you know, look on my face. And he said to me - he said, listen. He said, you know, what happened was horrible. And either, you know, you can, you know, look at your scars and, you know, the tube that you have in your neck and feel sorry for yourself or you can take this second opportunity and really make a difference for other people. And it was that moment that really changed me for the rest of my life.

GROSS: What had you planned on doing professionally before you were shot? What did you see ahead for yourself?

SAKRAN: You know, honestly, I don't know. I was 17. You know, there's this Brad Paisley song that says, at 17, you can barely see past Friday night.

GROSS: Yeah.

SAKRAN: And I think that - you know, what that means is, you know, you don't - most people, I think, at 17, you don't know what you want to do for the rest of your life. You don't realize the fact that you're mortal. And so I really had, you know, no idea. I was in the process of taking the SATs, you know, before I got shot. In fact, that day, I had been at an SAT prep class. And so, you know, I had plans to go to college. But I didn't really have a good direction as to where I was going.

GROSS: Did you tell your teachers in medical school that you had been shot and that that was part of - a major part of your motivation?

SAKRAN: I definitely used my own personal kind of experience and story as to, you know, the inspiration of why I decided to go into medicine. And it was really fascinating when I got a chance to come back after medical school and train at Inova Fairfax Hospital because I got a chance to train with, you know, the people that saved my life.

GROSS: Literally the same people?

SAKRAN: Yeah. So Dr. Bob Ahmed was my trauma surgeon and actually Dr. Dipankar Mukherjee was my vascular surgeon. So I had an injury to - in addition to my windpipe, I had an injury to the main blood vessel that takes blood to your brain, the carotid artery. And Dr. Mukherjee came in that night and repaired that with a vein graft. So just imagine, you know, the people that saved your life, now I'm coming back and I'm working with them. And it was really inspiring and nerve-wracking at the same time because, you know, you felt like, OK, I have to be perfect. These are the individuals that saved my life. I have to show them that, you know, what they did was definitely worth that. And I wanted to make them proud of, you know, this second opportunity they've given me. So it was a tremendous experience.

GROSS: Did they remember treating you?

SAKRAN: They did because I had kept in touch with them over the years.

GROSS: Why did you keep in touch with them?

SAKRAN: Well because, you know, they were the reason that I'm here today. And I just feel a profound sense of gratitude to them and to the rest of, you know, the trauma team for being there that day and giving me this opportunity.

GROSS: Do you have patients who stay in touch with you?

SAKRAN: I have a couple that stay in touch with me. And it's amazing because I feel like it was just yesterday that I was going through all of this, and now I'm on the other side, and I'm having patients, you know, come through and, you know, some of which I keep in touch with.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon who has treated hundreds of gun shooting victims. He's the director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with trauma surgeon Dr. Joseph Sakran, director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In response to the NRA's recent tweet - someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane - Sakran started the Twitter handle @ThisIsOurLane. It's led to thousands of tweets with the hashtag #ThisIsOurLane from people in the medical community who see gun violence as a medical issue. Sakran was a victim of gun violence when he was 17 and was shot in the throat after attending a high school football game.

Did your parents ever tell you what the doctors told them after they were finished working on you?

SAKRAN: You know, it's interesting that you ask that because we actually don't talk about it. It's - you know, we talked about it a little bit earlier on after I was injured, but it's not a topic that we necessarily bring up over dinner or in regular conversations. And I don't know exactly why that is, Terry. I mean, I probably don't bring it up because I don't know, you know, how much emotional stress it might cause them to have to kind of relive those moments. And, you know, I feel like I've gotten to a place in life where I've, you know, accepted what's happened and I've dealt with it in, you know, the most positive way that I can.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned your parents are immigrants. I don't know what country they came from, but I'm wondering if they were shocked that they they came to America - I don't know if they came here, like, for a job or just, like, looking for a better life or what, but they came to America. They raised you here and then you're shot. Like, what was their reaction as immigrants who had come here to be exposed to that kind of violence?

SAKRAN: So my mom was a Lebanese Catholic that actually grew up in Israel, and my dad was born in Nazareth. And they came here, you know, over 40 years ago, you know, for a better life. My dad's an aerodynamic space engineer. And, you know, looking at them as we grew up, my siblings and I, they imparted a lot of incredible values on us as children. And one of the things is their strong work ethic. And I think that's very typical for a lot of immigrant families. And I don't think that they ever in their wildest, you know, nightmares ever thought that something like this would happen to one of their kids.

GROSS: You know, in movies and books when gun injuries are depicted, whether it's in a story about war or gun violence in a neighborhood, there's always somebody, whether it's, like, a buddy or a surgeon, saying, hang in there, you're going to be OK, hang on. Do you say those kinds of things to your patients? And is it helpful to say that? And did anybody say that to you when you were the victim?

SAKRAN: So I often don't say those things to our patients. You know, usually our patients that we're getting that are critically ill, they're not always talking to us or they have breathing tubes and are not able to talk to us. So we see kind of a wide spectrum. And in the moment of when I'm caring for a patient, you know, I'm in my mind trying to make one life-saving decision after the other. And so that's really what I'm focused on caring for a patient, you know, I'm in my mind trying to make one life-saving decision after the other. And so, that's really what I'm focused on. I don't remember if anyone really said that to me during my own incident either. The - really the one thing that I do remember was my trauma surgeon kind of looking down at me and saying, listen; I have to do this to save your life.

GROSS: Can you give us some examples or any examples of gun victims who you've treated where you learned the story of what happened to them and you thought, this could have been prevented if only?

SAKRAN: Yeah. I mean, it's almost every example that we see in our trauma centers on a daily basis, you know, where you have someone that just recently was trying to unload his weapon. And there was a bullet in the chamber, and it went off, and he ended up shooting himself in the thigh, you know, or the person that is, you know, sitting at home playing with their, you know, father's handgun and doesn't realize it's loaded and shoots their best friend. I mean, these are - these stories are not uncommon.

GROSS: You saw that, too.

SAKRAN: Yeah, we see these every day. I mean, this is not just - I just want to make it clear 'cause, you know, sometimes, you know, these stories are not always told, and what we hear about are the mass shootings. But when you look at cities all across America, these are stories that are happening every day in our cities.

GROSS: What's the No. 1 policy change you as a trauma surgeon would recommend?

SAKRAN: Well, I think there would be really three things. The first is expanding universal background checks. The second is ensuring that we have federal funding to provide data-driven solutions. And the third is a focus on safe storage and education.

GROSS: So the federal funding - this is for CDC research to look at gun violence as, like, a medical issue, as an epidemic and try to investigate what the causes are and, therefore, what the solutions might be.

SAKRAN: Exactly.

GROSS: You know, I have to say, for someone who's been shot in your throat, your voice sounds really good. Did you have to work really hard to be able to get it to the place where you have it?

SAKRAN: You know, it's been difficult because, you know - luckily, I'm now, you know, sitting in a studio in a quiet room, so there's no one else talking, and I'm able to project in a decent manner. But, you know, if we were, say, you know, at a restaurant and things were loud, you might have trouble hearing me. And it's, you know, something that I've struggled on and off, but I've learned how to, you know, adapt and really kind of make the best out of that one vocal cord that I still do have.

GROSS: Dr. Sakran, thank you so much for talking with us, and thank you for saving lives. And I'm so glad that your life was saved. Thank you so much.

SAKRAN: Well, thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Dr. Joseph Sakran is a trauma surgeon and the director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new novel on Publishers Weekly's list of the 10 best books of the year. This is FRESH AIR.

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