A doctor pleads: We must protect our children


Even in a city where violence is part of the groan of daily life, the story from O'Donnell Heights reaches the outer limits of human comprehension. How do you even begin to make sense of it? Other kids have been wounded in drug dealers' cross-fires, they have been struck by stray bullets. In some twisted way, those cases were more understandable. In O'Donnell Heights, according to police, a man believed to be a drug dealer went into a rowhouse Tuesday night, shot a 24-year-old woman, then shot her 4-year-old son.

And the boy was asleep at the time.

The paramedics, Robert Hicks and Don Medtart, found him on a bed in a dark second-floor room just before midnight.

The boy was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. He was covered in blood. He was semiconscious, crying at times. He had been shot once in the back of the head. "Near the right ear," Medtart said. "And the bullet exited by the bridge of his nose."

The room was dark. Police officers and firefighters held flashlights while Medtart and Hicks worked on the child. They slipped his little legs into a pair of those inflatable plastic trousers that are used to build blood pressure in the bodies of trauma victims.

They took the boy to Johns Hopkins Children's Center, where today he was in serious but stable condition.

Medtart and Hicks have been partners for 4 1/2 years. They have treated dozens of children, some from gunshot wounds. Two years ago, they went to Druid Hill Avenue, where a 7-month-old boy had been hit three times by stray bullets from the street. It's insane, but given the firepower used by drug dealers to settle disputes, not incomprehensible. In fact, it's astounding that more city children have not been wounded. Twenty-one children were treated for gunshot wounds at Hopkins and the University of Maryland Medical Center in 1990. At least the same number were treated in 1991, including little Quantae Johnson, who survived a stray bullet to his brain.

"We've had children shot in their own homes," said Dr. David Nichols, director of pediatric intensive care at Hopkins. "We have had children shot despite the best efforts of their families to protect them."

Early Wednesday morning, one of Nichols' associates called him at home to tell him about the shooting victim from O'Donnell Heights. He told him, of course, about the extent of injuries and what doctors were doing to save the boy's life. But he didn't tell him about the circumstances of the shooting because, of course, he didn't know and it didn't matter. The doctors only know what the paramedics deliver -- the shattered, bleeding little bodies.

Nichols and his staff deal with the true innocents, the children sucked into the mad violence that laps around their little worlds like a festering fire. We are not doing enough to save them from the fire.

Of course, Nichols agrees, the welfare of a child is a parental responsibility first. "But if children are to grow up healthy they need to have a psychic balance, they need to know a peacefulness, they need a zone of security around them," he said. "Their parents, despite their best efforts, because of the circumstances in which they live, cannot always give that to them. . . . Children are the victims of criminal behavior, of social circumstances, and it is often beyond the ability of their families and their communities to cope with it and protect them.

"My appeal is on a level of human compassion, human being to human being, parent to parent, no matter where you live. How would you feel if it was your child in here, hooked up to machines, with tubes running in and out of his nose, attached to his arms and legs? What separates you from this circumstance? Your sense of security is not absolute. All of society is harmed when children grow up anxious and fearful and denied nurturing.

"We could be forfeiting a generation, and we cannot afford to. Children are a precious resource. This is an enormous, enormous issue. Individual adults -- and I don't care where you live -- have a collective responsibility to our children. Everybody needs to share in the responsibility -- the people of O'Donnell Heights, people everywhere. . . . Fight back, stand up. Pull children aside, talk to them, provide them a safe haven. However you approach this -- from a political, a religious, or compassionate point of view -- children are precious. We have to protect, nurture and preserve them. That is our responsibility. All of us."

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