Sept. 23, 1994.
It’s a date forever seared into Joseph Sakran's memory—the day he was shot.
Sakran, a teenager at the time, was hit in the throat by a .38 caliber bullet after a fight broke out in the park he was hanging out in and a guy started firing into the crowd.
“I don’t know how you were at 17, but I think a lot of folks don’t realize they’re mortal at that age,” said Sakran, M.D., now a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “The worst kind of day of my life also changed my whole outlook because it inspired me to go into medicine, it inspired me to become a trauma surgeon.”
He wanted to use his career, he said, to address that intersection of medicine with public health and policy—issues like the daily gun violence that plagues inner-city streets but has failed to gain the kind of attention that an increasing frequency of mass shootings has.
RELATED: Doctors to NRA on gun violence: This is our lane
A recent statement from the National Rifle Association on Twitter telling doctors to stay in their lane sparked frustration. How, Sakran wondered, could anyone not feel doctors would be part of the solution to this complex problem?
“I think it shows a lack of insight and a lack of understanding of how complex a problem we are dealing with, especially considering the fact that the medical community has tried to collaborate with the NRA," he said. "It drives this false narrative and this polarization that continues to divide us as Americans because the reality is, as Americans, we have more in common than we do that divides us."
He started the Twitter hashtag #thisisourlane last month, and it quickly gained more than 25,000 followers. Healthcare providers shared their own stories handling gunshot wounds and gruesome photos of their scrubs soaked in blood.
“It really has united healthcare professionals,” Sakran said. “As the medical community, we refuse to just sort of sit by and not be part of the solution."
Just weeks later—and in the wake of a recent shooting in a Chicago hospital—Sakran joined a press conference led by Representative Robin Kelly, D-Ill., who is vice chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust. He was among other firearm safety advocates from the medical community calling on Congress to expand universal background checks. "One in five gun sales occur with no questions asked at gun shows or over the Internet. Those loopholes put thousands and thousands of guns in the hands of dangerous people like felons and domestic abusers," he said.
He was also pushing for Congress to free up more funding for studying gun violence and creating more resources at the local level to support strategies that work, such as improving the use of secure gun storage. "This is just like any other public health crisis. If we dealt with this like a public health problem, we will be more effective at coming up with solutions to firearm injury and death in this country," he said.
Sakran said caring for these patients takes a toll on healthcare providers.
“Seeing these patients come in day in and day out is not easy. They don’t all survive, as we know," he said. "I always tell people the worst part of my job is going to talk to the mothers and families and tell them that their loved one is never coming home again. I think about my own family and what they must’ve gone through when the surgeon came out to talk to them. It’s devastating.”
He said he sees an opportunity to change the status quo. But he said it starts with getting beyond the statistics of gun violence.
"These are humans. These are mothers and brothers and sons and daughters that are being killed," Sakran said. "These are members of our community who are dying in senseless tragedies, and we can do something about that."