The headlines keep coming. A child is shot. The accompanying stories focus on young lives broken or lost. Parents and friends grieve on camera or in newspaper articles about the victim. Cutaway TV images of police cars, hospitals and ambulances provide sanitized visuals.
What happens inside a children’s hospital trauma center operating room in these cases is, thankfully, something we never see. But the insightful new book Healing Children — A Surgeon’s Stories from the Frontiers of Pediatric Medicine by Kurt Newman, M.D., makes a compelling case for why it’s more than just a dramatic read. The book provides a wealth of valuable lessons that can help health care leaders, physicians and parents in their respective roles.
Newman, president and CEO of Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., recounts in the book his experience as the trauma surgeon on duty the day a 14-year-old girl who was jumping rope in a park was shot in the chest, an unintended victim. He takes the reader through his mindset and thought process from the second he was paged to the trauma center to the critical decisions he had to make as the ambulance sped to the hospital. He recounts his clinical decision-making and the highly invasive approach he took to open the young woman’s chest immediately so he could work to restart the girl’s heart, which he ultimately held in his hand to pump life back into it.
The story has a rewarding ending for both patient and doctor; yet, in many ways it’s quite different from the rest of the book, which often focuses on less dramatic but no less important subjects ranging from the value of mentoring to the need to expand mental health access for children and the need for parents to learn about pediatric care and hospitals before an emergency arises. Newman’s book provides a platform for dialog for everyone who has a stake in health care. The story of the young shooting victim is a perfect example.
“One of the things that hospitals have done well is to develop trauma systems and the ability to respond to crises and, in our case, to take care of children after they’ve been shot or stabbed or endured trauma. That is great, but one area where we should definitely spend more time is getting ahead of that and trying to identify causes,” Newman says.
To learn more about what hospitals are doing to prevent violence in their communities, visit the American Hospital Association’s Hospitals Against Violence web page.
Newman also discusses children’s mental health issues in the book. In our interview, he said he would like to see more time, energy and investment placed on the mental health needs of children. He is passionate about the need to identify and treat the mental health issues of children at the earliest onset.
“Twenty percent of children will have some type of mental or behavioral health issue during their childhoods. The time it takes from when an issue is first noticed to when they’re diagnosed, if treatment is available and given, is an average of eight years. If we focused resources [in this area], we could have a big impact on our children’s health,” Newman says.
Increased resources for children’s mental health issues would offer multiple societal, health and economic benefits, Newman explains.
“As an example, in the world of early intervention and early education around health, $1 spent has been estimated to save $9 down the line. That’s just a financial calculation. The thing you can’t measure is the optimum potential of a child, and that’s what we want to maximize,” he says.
Another area in which Newman would like to optimize his impact on the field involves sharing career and life experiences. He emphasizes the strong role hospital leaders can have on their physicians and other staff when they mentor or share stories about their most difficult decisions and tough calls.
“One of the things I’ve benefited from over the years has been leaders who allowed themselves to be vulnerable … not just to share their successes but their challenges and some of the difficulties they’ve faced,” Newman says. “That creates a bond and a credibility and authenticity to leadership. It’s so satisfying to have the opportunity to have young people be inspired by our leaders.”