Why Washington doctor who treated shooting victims spoke out

The Washington PostSeptember 19, 2013 

Shooting Military Building

Dr. Janis M. Orlowski, chief operating officer at Washington Hospital Center speaks at a news conference in Washington about the conditions of the people who were brought to the hospital from the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard building.


— For too many years, Janis Orlowski has seen the victims wheeled into her hospitals. First in Chicago and now in Washington. Young men killed or wounded in gun violence.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked into the emergency room and seen principally a dead young man lying on the cart,” said the senior administrator at the District of Columbia’s largest trauma clinic. “We are violent, we are aggressive, and we kill our own. That’s what I see.”

On Monday, it was too much. Especially after other recent mass shootings – Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook – she couldn’t remain silent.

Orlowski, 57, spoke up at the end of a news conference where she was briefing the media on treatment of people wounded in the Navy Yard shooting, which left 13 dead, including the gunman. In unplanned comments that instantly made her an Internet and television celebrity, she used plain, direct language typical of her rural Wisconsin upbringing.

The “senseless trauma” is “something evil in our society,” Orlowski said. She urged the public: “Put my trauma center out of business .... I would like to not be an expert on gunshots.”

Orlowski’s dramatic plea drew praise especially from supporters of gun control. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a one-dimensional anti-gun advocate.

Yes, the doctor would support stricter gun laws. But she stressed that legislation is not the sole answer. Instead, as she explained in a one-hour interview Tuesday, the remedy must be broader.

“I don’t believe that if you have gun control, then the world is good,” she said. “ believe it’s a combination of how we view guns, how they’re available in our society, what we do with mental health, what we do with those people who find themselves on the fringes of society.”

To rely only on the government, she said, “is in some ways a cop out.”

Orlowski said it was critical for society as a whole to identify and treat people suffering from aggression, post-traumatic stress or other mental-health problems.

She felt moved to speak Monday partly because she remembered a conversation with a friend, also a doctor, who helped treat victims of the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson. The 22-year-old gunman, who severely wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“The doctor I spoke with basically said, ‘Janis, if we had mental health available to our citizens, we wouldn’t need this trauma center,’ ” Orlowski said.

I think Orlowski’s original comments had such an effect because she appreciates both the depth and complexity of the problem. Her nuanced views spring partly from her experience as one of eight children in Mount Pleasant, Wis. Her father hunted, and everybody in the community was familiar with firearms and the proper way to handle them.

“Gun safety was something that was taught,” she said. Bad behavior with guns “wasn’t just forbidden by your parents, but it was forbidden by society,” she said.

Orlowski got her first extended experience with the human cost of gun violence while working for 22 years at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She has seen more of it since she moved to Washington in 2004.

For someone with such a high-powered job – she oversees a staff of 6,000 – she comes across as friendly and unpretentious.

Although she hadn’t planned to say the words that made her famous, Orlowski was glad she did. She thinks it’s important to treat gun violence as a public health issue, as well as a socio-economic one.

“If the chief medical officer of the largest trauma and burn unit of Washington, D.C., doesn’t say something about this societal ill, who does?” Orlowski said. “I probably should have done more of this. I chide myself for not doing more.”

She’s done plenty. Orlowski has set an example for passionate, thoughtful advocacy that other leaders in medicine and elsewhere should emulate.

The Washington Post

Robert McCartney is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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