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'We created this problem': a pediatric surgeon on how gun violence affects children

Dr. Mikael Petrosyan, associate chief of general and thoracic surgery, poses for a portrait in his office at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 2023.
Eric Lee for NPR
Dr. Mikael Petrosyan, associate chief of general and thoracic surgery, poses for a portrait in his office at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 2023.

Treating gunshot wounds on children was not what Mikael Petrosyan expected when he entered pediatrics.

Petrosyan has been working as a pediatric surgeon at the Children's National Hospital for more than a decade, and he has treated many children injured by guns.

He hasn't been able to save them all and has had to tell parents that their children have died from gunshot wounds.

"It's a devastating thing to do, to lose a child for something that has been caused by guns," Petrosyan said. "It's not an accident. It was totally preventable in many ways."

Last year, 106 juveniles were registered as gun shot wound victims in Washington D.C., and 16 of those incidents were fatal, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. Law enforcement in D.C. also recovered more than 3,000 firearms in both 2022 and 2023.

Petrosyan says having to tell a parent their child has died from gunshot wounds is one of the most difficult parts of his job.

Gun violence, including homicides, suicides and unintentional injuries, is the leading cause of death among American children and teens, ages 1-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, 1,682 children and teens were shot and killed and 4,512 were injured — excluding the number of gun related suicides.

As Petrosyan sees it, the physical damage is just the beginning.

"There's a lot of damage, not just physical, but psychological and emotional," Petrosyan said. "I'm talking about families and people that are involved, not only parents, family, but also people who are treating the children. They are psychologically impacted significantly."

His colleagues are also feeling the strain to the point that some have stopped working temporarily for relief. Some are even considering early retirement or leaving the field altogether.

D.C. is seen from a window from Dr. Mikael Petrosyan's, associate chief of general and thoracic surgery, office at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 2023.
/ Eric Lee for NPR
/
Eric Lee for NPR
D.C. is seen from a window from Dr. Mikael Petrosyan's, associate chief of general and thoracic surgery, office at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 2023.

Petrosyan sat with Morning Edition's Michel Martin to discuss his experience as someone who regularly witnesses the effects of gun violence on U.S. youth as part of our ongoing series, We, The Voters.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michel Martin: Little kids aren't — they're not supposed to be injured.

Mikael Petrosyan: They're not supposed to be injured. A lot of times they are bystanders. Most of the time they're innocent bystanders, 99.9% of the time. I'm not a politician, but we have to do better than what we have right now. It's not stable. It's not right. There's something we're not doing right.

Martin: Most people don't go into pediatrics thinking we're going to be treating gun violence. I mean, it's just I think that's fair to say, right?

Petrosyan: Correct.

Martin: So, can you just talk about how it affects you and the people you work with, your colleagues, the nurses, the staff, the other doctors?

Petrosyan: It does affect us, operating on kids. It's a job that comes with stress. I have three young kids and I go home every day, and I worry about this every day. And I text my wife, 'Are they OK? Was the school OK?' It doesn't matter where you live. Every day I think about it. I drive here every day, I think about it. So, these are things that will never leave me. I wish it did. And it causes stress on everyone. People think you're a surgeon, you're tough, but there's a lot of things associated with it.

Martin: Is there something you particularly want people to know who don't see what you see?

Petrosyan: People have to understand that we created this problem. It wasn't there before. We've created it. So we have to do something, not just lock the guns. It's not just that. It's education. It's community involvement. It's improving the socioeconomic status of people, communities. We have to do better as Americans, as everyone, as a family.

The pediatric intensive care unit at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 2023.
/ Eric Lee for NPR
/
Eric Lee for NPR
The pediatric intensive care unit at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 2023.

When you lose a child on an operating table in an emergency room, it's devastating. You can't even talk or eat or do anything, many days. It's devastating, and I wouldn't want to wish on anyone. And imagine, as a parent, losing a child. How can you say to the parent that you lost their child? It's one of the most difficult things I've done in my career. It's when you go out there after the trauma resuscitation or an operation, and tell the parents, I'm sorry I couldn't save your child. It wasn't me that caused it, but I feel the responsibility that I wasn't able to save.

Martin: Can I ask you if you've ever thought about it? If you've ever thought, 'I can't, I can't do it. This has to stop?'

Petrosyan: Not yet. But it's getting there.

Lindsay Totty produced the audio story, and Jan Johnson edited the audio version. Destinee Adams wrote the digital story, and Obed Manuel edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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