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Mass shootings: what we can’t control, and what we can

Aug. 15, 2019, 11:08 AM


Dear Colleagues,

The alarming number of mass shootings around the country is, without a doubt, ratcheting up anxiety as people wonder when our neighbors, our first responders, our teams could be called into action. And worst of all, the fear that we or people we know will be victims.

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

We know trauma ricochets around communities leaving imprints of destruction we can’t clearly see. The fear and anxiety permeate thoughts and behaviors, upend peace of mind and set lives off course. At VUMC, we have many communities — among our employees, trainees and patients — that without being physically present, still relate to these events as “indirect victims” and are deeply affected. Studies show individuals impacted in this way may well experience significant and treatable anxiety and depression.

One way we, as a health system, can deal with feelings that range from anger to helplessness is to do what we can control — prepare for similar kinds of violence that could land on our doorstep.

Our dedicated Emergency Medicine and Trauma teams care for all comers, including the most critically injured, day in and day out. After more than 35 years as the region’s only Level I Trauma Center, our people and systems achieve remarkable outcomes, managing the number of trauma cases almost daily that would officially qualify as a mass casualty event at the typical community hospital. We are practiced by both drills and recent experiences for the violent trauma hitting neighborhoods and communities around the country.

People go about their lives, largely unaware that hundreds of people here at VUMC are tirelessly preparing to save them should it ever become necessary. We are trained and ready to respond with efficiency and unmatched skill — to manage and repair the most tragic kinds of bodily damage.

Yet, it’s the intentionality of the violence — the disregard and contempt for life, which we are trained to preserve — that differentiates these massacres from the accidents and disasters that usually place people into our care. The terror and randomness of these events grip our collective psyche, heightening unease about safety in our stores, schools, places of worship and entertainment venues.

I know you are affected by the mass shootings because so too am I. The frequency of these events has risen to the point where many of us know someone who has been involved or witnessed one of these events or has a close friend or relative who has. Our training does not insulate us from the necessity to process — each in our own way — our emotional responses. Let’s support one another as we do so. As we do, it is a comfort to remember to look for the rich humanity in those all around us.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is a community committed, above all else, to give hope and support to people in distress, here and across the globe. Each of us plays a vital role in the ecosystem that makes it possible to fulfill that awesome responsibility.

And we should all be reassured with a quiet confidence that our medical center is prepared to respond when called — no matter if it’s an act of hate or the winds of a natural disaster. We will do what we have always done. We will put our own emotions aside and do whatever is necessary to save lives.

Please take care of yourself so we can all continue to be that source of hope.



Jeff Balser, MD, PhD,

 President and Chief Executive Officer of VUMC,

Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

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