Los Angeles trauma surgeon describes influx of shooting victims; takes toll on hospital staff

The Chief of the Trauma Division at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Dr. Brant Putnam, said the hospital is experiencing an influx of gunshot wound victims in 2021.

"In my 20 plus years, this is probably the busiest I've seen in terms of gunshot wound victims in particular. One of the things that have struck us is the number of violent type injuries, what we call penetrating trauma, and particularly from gunshot wounds. It is up dramatically from that first quarter. For us that means things are quite a bit busier," said Putnam.

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Harbor-UCLA is a level 1 trauma center in Torrance. According to statistics, the hospital has seen a nearly 87% increase in gunshot wound patients with 142 patients so far in 2021 compared to 76 during the same time period in 2020.

"Every time the paramedics are bringing a gunshot wound victim to us, that's sort of an all hands on deck situation where it's our highest level of activation. We make sure that all the important members of the team are there, everything from our surgeons to our emergency medicine physicians, all of our nursing staff, respiratory therapists, the anesthesiologists. It's a tremendous use of resources when we have a gunshot wound victim come in and unfortunately, it's become all too regular for us," said Putnam.

Putnam said the hospital staff has not seen a slowdown with COVID cases and the influx of gunshot wound victims within the trauma division.

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"Unfortunately the trauma patient volume did not drop off as significantly as we would have expected. In fact, there was still a fair amount of this violent type of trauma that happened in our communities so it sort of was at its normal constant rate and recently it's increased even further. It never really saw that drop off that we would expect from everyone being quarantined, in their homes during this COVID pandemic," said Putnam.

Putnam said hospital staff was already stressed due to the pandemic.

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"Particularly for the nursing staff, I think taking care of those Covid patients for so many months and through so many ups and downs, that was a tremendous toll on everybody. The physical workload of taking care of a sick COVID patient that's on a breathing machine, it really, I think destroyed the morale over a period of time. Going from that to taking care of very sick trauma patients and using all those resources that we talked about before definitely can put a stress on people's morale, people's sense of why are we doing all this and so it's kind of a sad commentary on society and people aren't exactly sure why this is happening but they are tired as well," said Putnam.

The reasons for the increase in shootings are unclear though some law enforcement officials believe the pandemic could be one of the reasons.  

According to the Los Angeles Police Department, homicides are up 25.8% in 2021 compared to 2020. From January 1 to May 3 of 2021, there have been 117 homicides compared to 93 during the same time period in 2020. However, the number of shooting victim cases is up 70.1%. From January 1 to May 2 of 2021, there were 478 shooting victim cases compared to 281 during the same time period in 2020.

Dr. Putnam said when patients come to their hospital, their focus is treating the patients instead of finding out what brought them to the hospital. However, he believes some of the cases could possibly be pandemic related.

"Some of that, you can speculate, may be related to the pandemic, doing everything virtually, people being frustrated but we've definitely seen a serious uptick in gunshot wound injuries in that first quarter," said Putnam.

Dr. Putnam hopes talking about the issue and making the public aware can help the violence subside in the community.

"We just take one day at a time and try and take care of the patients and start to think about what we can do as a community activism standpoint, a violence prevention standpoint of how we can get the word out about these injuries and what that means for folks and tell people how serious it really is, how much of a healthcare problem it really is," said Putnam.