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Michel B. Aboutanos column: We all have a role in preventing violence and healing trauma in Richmond
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The Challenge We Face Together

Michel B. Aboutanos column: We all have a role in preventing violence and healing trauma in Richmond

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2020 was a year of loss and grief across the nation — and here at home in Richmond. Many will attest that it also was a year of sacrifice, resilience, defiance and heroism. While headlines were dominated by staggering numbers of sickness and death from COVID-19, trauma-related injuries were on the rise, particularly from violence.

In Virginia alone, more than 1,000 of our friends, family and neighbors suffered gunshot-related injuries. In the past month, we’ve lost 13 Richmond residents to gun violence. And this is just one example of traumatic injury in our region. Domestic violence, fatal car crashes and more are up as well across the commonwealth. How we responded to those staggering figures, and overwhelming pressure and realities, ultimately is what defined us.

As Mayor Levar Stoney recently said, violence is “a crisis we must confront head-on, boldly addressing root causes so that every Richmonder can live their life to the fullest.” We could not agree more.

At VCU Health’s Level 1 Trauma Center, the longest designated in the commonwealth and the only comprehensive trauma center in Virginia, our doctors, nurses, researchers and social workers have seen a lot, but we never have seen a year like this. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, we’ve treated more than 400 victims of gun violence, a 51% increase over 2019. Victims of domestic violence and other forms of trauma also have dramatically increased.

The combined stresses of a dangerous pandemic, isolation in lockdown, lost jobs, closed schools and civil unrest as the nation reckons with racial injustice have pushed many Richmonders past the breaking point to violence in our streets and homes. The fact is, this year and every year, violence never is a simple problem with a single cause. It’s the terrible result of many complex causes. And so, violence requires a holistic response.

We have answered the challenge in the most difficult and demanding conditions, and stood with our communities as first responders, healers and caregivers. However, our work as health care specialists in trauma is about more than treating injuries. Yes, come to us when emergency care and lifesaving treatment is needed. But we also are coming to you. The VCU Health Trauma Center and Injury & Violence Prevention Program work to reduce and prevent violence and trauma in all their forms. That work begins in our communities.

To find ways to prevent violence, we go into the neighborhoods of Richmond to understand the conditions and causes that can lead to violence. We find evidence-based ways to prevent retaliatory gun violence and intimate partner violence, youth violence interventions and the neurology of aggression. When trauma does occur, we treat it in all of its forms, from gunshot wounds to car crash injuries and burns. We also are Virginia’s home for the Trauma Survivors Network, a healing and recovery program of the American Trauma Society, as well as Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery, a support group for burn victims. And each year, at the Center for Trauma and Critical Care Education, we train more than 40% of EMTs and other first responders in the commonwealth and almost 5,000 students to deliver care and support to victims of trauma.

Our comprehensive approach to the prevention, treatment and recovery from trauma is not our work alone. A number of VCU Health and university leaders are partnering with Stoney, Attorney General Mark Herring, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and Department of Health, and leaders in our faith, education and youth communities to stop the violence. Together, we are connecting experts and linking services across the region to make life in Richmond safer and healthier for all.

Toward that end, U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-4th, has advanced a federal budget proposal to fund a collaborative model for reducing gun violence in Richmond. We are hopeful Congress will endorse it this year so that we can continue this necessary work.

The most important team member in our effort, however, is you. Each one of us has a vital role to play. May is National Trauma Awareness Month, a moment for all of us to recommit to preventing trauma in all of its forms. We hope you will join area doctors, nurses and community leaders in addressing the root causes of violence in Richmond. As Virginia emerges from one of the most difficult years in memory, let us all move forward with grace in our hearts, science and prayers for guidance, and commit to the well-being of each other. When we act as one community, better and safer days surely are ahead for all of us.

Michel B. Aboutanos, M.D., is medical director of VCU Medical Center’s Level 1 Trauma Center, Trauma Network, and Injury & Violence Prevention Program. VCU Medical Center is home to the only Level 1 adult, pediatric and burn trauma center in the region and the longest-standing, state-designated trauma center in Virginia. Contact him at: michel.aboutanos@vcuhealth.org

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