The Emotional Toll of Gun Violence Among Healthcare Workers

Dragana Gordic / Shutterstock

Source: Dragana Gordic / Shutterstock

When I began writing this, the unthinkable tragedy in Uvalde, Texas was the most recent incident of a mass shooting in our country. Already since then, the community of Tulsa, Oklahoma has been rocked by another violent massacre, and all while the news of what happened in Uvalde, Texas continues to unfold. Twenty-one innocent lives were lost in Uvalde (19 of them children), 17 injured, and thousands forever changed. Words fail in moments like these, but it behooves us to try to say something.

When I dropped my 12-year-old off at school in New Orleans earlier this month, I thought of the other parents who dropped their children off for school in Uvalde just a few days earlier, not knowing it was the last time they would ever see their child. They never got to say goodbye – just like the parents in Parkland, in Sandy Hook, and in other places too numerous to list.

I thought of my 12-year-old and tried to imagine what he and his classmates were thinking as they walked through their school’s doors that day. I ached for my son and the rest of our country’s children who have been forced to put on a brave face time and time again. Children who have been forced to undergo active shooter drills and other security measures that have somehow been accepted as our “new normal” – even though countless children fearing for their lives can never be considered normal.

Through my mourning, I have also often thought of the team at Uvalde Memorial Hospital, EMS workers, and grief counselors who were on the scene and continue to care for that community. I thought of the healthcare workers who cared for their communities after Las Vegas, Orlando, and Buffalo. As a healthcare worker myself, I can say with certainty that there is no training that could possibly prepare you for losses of such magnitude.

Devastatingly, I learned, because Uvalde is such a tight knit community, many of those first responders and healthcare workers were personally impacted. One emergency medical technician shared in an interview that he learned his daughter was lost in the tragedy while treating another victim. His pain was so strong it was palpable through the television screen.

The toll of this event, and so many others before it, is simply not quantifiable. Physicians, nurses, APPs, counselors and so many others are there for people during the most difficult moments of their lives. We see the horror of gun violence up close every day: the gory injuries guns inflict upon their victims and families, both physical and mental. We see it all and we treat it to the best of our ability. But even with the best resources available, removing that grief and burden when we take off our scrubs is difficult. We move on as best we can so that we may try again another day. We also sit on the other side of those difficult conversations, receiving comfort in our times of need.

We do not expect it to be easy and we are not afraid to do the hard work. But we can not do it alone. The mental health needs of healthcare workers – and of every one of us – must be prioritized and addressed. The painful truth of the matter is that we are in the midst of another epidemic: that of gun violence. And as healthcare workers, we find ourselves on the frontlines yet again – just as we were at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which still has not ended. We have not gotten a respite since the battle began. While the world calls us superheroes, the truth is: we are only human and we need a helping hand.

In addition to holding my loved ones a little closer each opportunity I get, I have been reaching out to my colleagues more often. I hope these personal check-ins have been as meaningful and helpful to them as they have been for me.

To those reading this post, I suggest giving conversations like this a try. The content of what you might say is not as critical as the act of genuinely connecting with those around you, being empathetic and vulnerable together. However, if it is helpful, here are some of the ways I have started these conversations:

  • I have started by asking my colleagues how I can support them
  • Telling them I wanted to check in to see how they were doing
  • Letting them know how heartbroken I feel, too
  • Assuring them that it is okay to not be okay.

I believe we can find collective healing through these kinds of conversations, by being empathetic with one another, and by trying to understand that, although we are all wounded, we suffer differently. We can heal collectively by practicing self-care and encouraging our friends and coworkers to do the same. We can heal collectively by keeping open lines of effective communication, making connections daily, and asking those around us how they are coping.

For those of us who are leaders at our organizations, we must role-model with authenticity, ensure our employees are maintaining healthy work-life balances, check in frequently, and refer people to resources when appropriate. Taking steps such as these to facilitate a culture of well-being is critical for every organization, but especially healthcare organizations right now.

Healthcare workers need to find space between numbness and overwhelming grief and accept that some days we will fall short of where we wish to be. We need the rest of the country to join us on the front lines: to help us combat the epidemic of gun violence head on. We need your support. We can not stop the bleeding without you.

I hope that my colleagues at Ochsner, at Uvalde Memorial, at the Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, and across the world feel seen and supported in their moments of grief and humanity. Our pain should not be compared to one another’s, but it can become a part of our story that is not hidden. You are not alone, you are seen, and your story matters.

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