About a month ago, I had just finished hospital rounds when I heard “code active threat” on the overhead intercom. Thinking it was a drill, I continued typing patient notes until I heard a more urgent: “Please barricade in place or, if able, evacuate the premises immediately.”
My heart raced as I quickly weighed my options: barricade myself alone in the physician lounge or run to the parking garage, risking the possibility of an active shooter in the hallway. Taking my chances, I ran out the door and joined the mass exodus of people driving away.
How has this become the new normal?
Schools with active shooter drills?
Countless tragedies at:
- Grocery stores
- Movie theaters
- Concert venues
- Places of worship
And unfortunately, more locations.
Is this the world that the writers of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights envisioned?
As a society, the sheer number of tragedies has numbed us. Now, we casually read about this, listen to eyewitness accounts and victim tributes. We empathize with families’ unanswered calls to action. This disease of gun violence has become a malignant part of our society. And because of divisive politics, it seems our country is falling apart.
“United we stand. Divided, we fall.”
Now, I look back on my childhood in the 1980s and early ’90s with nostalgia. Then, we only practiced fire and tornado drills. Back then, “peer pressure,” “say no to drugs,” and “stranger danger” were the main topics parents discussed. Today as a parent of three, I do not know where to begin. How do you tell a child that children have been killed at school? It’s absurd that this has become part of the back-to-school conversation.
That “code active threat,” we later found out, thankfully was a false alarm. Shootings nationwide have increased our vigilance. I have had conversations with nurses and doctors alike about hypothetical situations:
What to do if we find ourselves on hospital floors?
How do we evacuate or hide our patients?
Where do we hide?
Where are the fastest exits?
Have you considered bulletproof clothing?
Our nation has become reactive instead of preventative. In medicine, this is not the way — only prevention is.
To screen for colon cancer, people aged 45 and above can start having colonoscopies to look for suspicious polyps. These polyps can be removed and, in some cases, prevent the development of colon cancer. Also, any male over age 65 who has ever smoked can have ultrasound screening for abdominal aortic aneurysms —in hopes of early repair to prevent death. In like manner, women aged 40 and above can start receiving mammograms in hopes of catching breast cancer early and extending life.
In the medical world, we have all these screenings to prevent horrible illnesses that can ultimately lead to death. Physicians and patients do not wait for cancer to spread to the lungs, brain, and liver, so we can reflexively treat with chemo that may or may not work.
Gun violence is our society’s disease. It has run rampant in multiple cities across America. Yet time and time again, history repeats itself: there’s a shooting, we pour over news reports, listen to witness accounts, we shake our heads in disbelief, and silently feel grateful it did not affect us.
However, we know that once a cancer spreads to lymph nodes and multiple organs, the likelihood of cure is essentially nil. The only way to combat gun violence, regardless of politics, is to remain united as a people. This is a public health emergency.
But with COVID, we know how that went.
Leslie Mattson is an internal medicine physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com