Rick Santorum ironically uses CPR to resuscitate the voice of doctors

Rick Santorum ironically uses CPR to resuscitate the voice of doctors
© Greg Nash

 On Sunday, former Pennsylvania GOP Senator Rick Santorum suggested during CNN’s State of the Union that students protesting gun violence should not petition the government for change but should instead take CPR classes.

“How about kids, instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem, do something about maybe taking CPR classes or trying to deal with situations where there is a violent shooter and you can actually respond to that?”

Santorum’s remarks came just one day after March for Our Lives — he's since then apologized — when hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets around the country in an impressive show of political will.

 

While outrage against his tone-deaf comment reverberated among pundits and politicians, including former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), it was the medical community’s response that really resonated with the public.

Usually just ancillary to the discussion on gun violence, doctors, nurses, and emergency medical technicians this time took center stage in their condemnation of Santorum’s infuriating and misleading statement. They sparked a national conversation about the actual lifesaving measures for gunshot victims as well as their own personal experiences treating patients.

I was the first to tweet my outrage at Rick Santorum’s comment from the perspective of a surgeon who has operated on severely injured gunshot victims.

Santorum’s callous remarks reminded me of the time I had a 20-year-old man come into my hospital with multiple gunshot wounds to his abdomen. He was bleeding to death and CPR certainly wouldn’t have helped him. Although we quickly brought him to the operating room and removed his entire right kidney, part of his liver, and a large amount of his intestines, he later died in the intensive care unit.

After that tweet, the conversation only picked up momentum when other physicians contributed their own voices. Dr. Joseph Sakran, trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, powerfully rebuked Santorum in a tweet that struck at the heart of how nonsensical it is to administer CPR to a victim of penetrating trauma.

In fact, as the conversation grew louder, Dr. Sakran and I soon connected over the phone. He told me how as physicians “we have a certain credibility that comes from our training and experience that needs to be heard.” He further elaborated that we need to “tell our stories in a way that not only informs and educates but also changes the hearts and minds of the American people.”

Sakran may have a point. Gun violence is claiming so many young lives that it has become our responsibility as physicians and surgeons to help people not only within the operating room but outside of it as well.

According to an analysis by the New York Times, there have been 239 school shootings since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.  Since then more than 400 people have been shot and 138 murdered. As with many other acts of terror, these shootings affect far more people than those who are directly injured. In fact, estimates show that more than 150,000 students have experienced a shooting on campus since Columbine in 1999.

Doctors have a unique perspective about what goes on when the victims of these school shootings come to the hospital and we frantically work to save their lives. As it so happens, sometimes even more than that. Dr. Sakran himself was the victim of a school-related shooting.

“When I was 17, I was shot in the throat with a .38 caliber bullet right after a high school football game,” he told me. “As a teenager, I never really confronted my own mortality until that point. But it completely changed my worldview. I was inspired by the second chance that I was given and it motivated me to become a doctor. It has been my privilege and honor to give others that same second chance as a trauma surgeon. 

Sakran has certainly been a powerful voice in both the medical community and beyond. He founded Docs Demand Action, modeled after Shannon Watts’ hugely successful Moms Demand Action but from the perspective of doctors advocating for gun reform. He hopes that Docs Demand will change the public narrative on guns in much the same way. “We all want the same thing,” said Sakran. “An end to gun violence in this country.”

Other physicians have also been adding their voice to the conversation. Dr. Heather Sher, a radiology attending who treated the mass-shooting victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School described in an article in The Atlantic how some of the victims’ damaged organs “looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer.

 Not only did her article bring home to the American public just how devastating AR-15 bullets can be, but after Santorum’s comments and the ensuing backlash in the medical community, Heather tweeted that “The world is a better place when doctors advocate publicly. It is a new era with physician leaders standing up and speaking out.”

Santorum was deadly wrong telling students to learn CPR instead of protesting against gun violence. But his outrageous comment may be resuscitating the voice of doctors in this important national debate on gun control. More and more physicians are coming forward and telling their stories — adding a unique and valuable perspective that may help save lives and change our country forever. 

As Dr. Megan Ranney eloquently put it in a tweet, “We are all stronger together. And when we keep our patients at the center of the conversation, the world becomes a better place.” 

Dr. Eugene Gu is a resident physician at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and president of the Ganogen Research Institute. He graduated from Stanford University with honors and holds an M.D. from the Duke University School of Medicine.