This story was published in partnership with the Trace.
Megan Ranney will never forget the first time she witnessed a trauma unit treat a shooting victim.
She was a young medical student at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York when a young man was rushed in on a gurney with what medical professionals often refer to only as a “GSW.” Ranney was familiar with the initialism from her training, but in that moment she learned something textbooks can’t teach: the emotional toll of a gunshot wound.
“My memory of it is both the utter fear on the kid’s face,” she said, “but also the speed of the response.”
The team quickly mobilized to assess the damage, control the bleeding, and save the man’s life.
Hospitals are prepared to deal with injuries like this every day, thanks in large part to the enormous resources devoted to post-trauma care. Ranney wondered what could be done to match the intensity and precision of our response to gun-related injuries to their prevention.
More than a decade later, Ranney still wrestles with this every day. As an injury prevention researcher, she has focused on evidence-based ways to reduce the impact of violence. She has become familiar with the statistics, which she’s used for years to push for increased funding for research into injuries from firearms. (Approximately 1,565 patients with gunshot wounds are treated in emergency rooms across the country each week.) But she’s found that when it comes to rallying support for this type of research, no statistic is as powerful as a story. So, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, she started collecting stories.
“What was really missing from the conversation after Parkland was the real impact [of gun violence] across our country on real Americans,” said Ranney, who also works as an emergency physician and associate professor at Brown University’s Albert Medical School.
She remembered how her colleague Esther Choo used Twitter to give a voice to patients who were deeply affected by, but not included in, decisions about the Affordable Care Act. Believing that a similar approach could be useful in the post-Parkland conversation, Ranney posted requests on Facebook and through email asking doctors to share their experiences with gun violence. She also collected stories from doctors across the country using the hashtag #docs4gunsense.
In just a couple of days, Ranney received hundreds of messages from medical workers nationwide. She has shared the most powerful responses in a thread that, as of March 20, was 124-tweets long and growing.
The stories come from a range of medical workers, including nurses, EMTs, psychologists, and pediatricians. “Most of us, no matter what specialty we’ve gone into, have cared for hundreds or even thousands of GSW victims,” Ranney said.
Reading through the responses, Ranney said she had to take breaks because of how viscerally upsetting many of the tweets were. The stories are deeply personal—they deal with suicides, incidents of domestic violence, and unintentional, but preventable, deaths—and highlight the ripple effect that gunshot wounds have on the body and mind, on families, and in communities.
Some doctors described the screams and wails of mothers who had lost a child:
Stories of gunshot survivors were also common. As The Trace has reported, survivors often experience psychological trauma, permanent disability, and financial hardship:
The stories illustrate that you don’t have to be hit by a bullet for your life to change dramatically as a result of gun violence. Those who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence experience trauma that can be devastating and even deadly:
After Ranney started posting the stories on Twitter, she heard from a friend with whom she often disagrees politically. “Regardless of our political viewpoints,” the woman said, “we all bleed the same.” Ranney said she hopes that people can bring this frame of mind to discussions about gun violence and injury prevention. For her, these conversations aren’t about demonizing gun ownership, they’re about keeping patients safe.