The doc­tor

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD -

In the pres­sure cooker world of pe­di­atric in­ten­sive care, Dr. Cather­ine Hu­mikowski has seen the griev­ous dam­age bul­lets do when they rip into young brains and bod­ies.

The list is long, the wounds har­row­ing: A de­pressed, gaunt-faced 15-year-old, par­a­lyzed from the shoul­ders down, tubes snaking through his stom­ach and wind­pipe. A 6-year-old girl shot in the stom­ach. Ado­les­cent boys with bul­lets in their thighs and butt, be­wil­dered by catheters and em­bar­rassed by nurses pok­ing and prod­ding at their pri­vate parts.

Hu­mikowski is med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the pe­di­atric ICU at the Univer­sity of Chicago Medicine Comer Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal. She loves the job, she says, but it’s phys­i­cally ex­haust­ing and has changed what she does out­side of work. She avoids read­ing the news, talks with a ther­a­pist and lim­its her­self to a sin­gle din­ner drink to avoid “self-med­i­ca­tion.” This year, Chicago’s vi­o­lence also helped prompt a lifechang­ing de­ci­sion: She’s leav­ing when her con­tract ex­pires next sum­mer.

“To walk away from it is re­ally hard,” she says, “but at the end of the day when I rec­og­nize in my­self that I’ve achieved a de­gree of numb­ness ... that de­sen­si­tizes me to the things that are so im­por­tant to me. That’s the point where I say I ac­tu­ally need a break.”

Hu­mikowski will spend her sab­bat­i­cal rais­ing her 3-yearold daugh­ter, writ­ing a book about doc­tors who have sur­vived car­diac ar­rests — she’s one of them — and fo­cus­ing on gun vi­o­lence as a com­mu­nity health con­cern. She’s not sure when she’ll re­turn to medicine full-time.

This year, Comer saw about 50 kids with gun­shot wounds. Hu­mikowski re­calls one teen shot in the head who was a bright stu­dent, an ath­lete and church-goer. His men­tors gath­ered around his bed to pray for him. “He did ev­ery­thing right,” she says. “What the heck is he do­ing ly­ing shot in my ICU? I re­mem­ber think­ing if this kid doesn’t make it out, who’s go­ing to EVER make it out?”

But she chas­tises her­self, too, not­ing that she and other ded­i­cated med­i­cal staffers some­times find them­selves men­tally sep­a­rat­ing the “good kid” from the one who might be in a gang.

“Sud­denly we don’t feel the same way about that kid as the one who’s un­load­ing his (mu­si­cal) in­stru­ments out­side a church and was a drive-by,” she says. “Why not? They’re still kids. They still live in that com­mu­nity. They still face all the same pres­sures. That’s the piece that’s re­ally got­ten to me over the last year: how we de­liver com­pas­sion to these pa­tients . ... And does it change be­cause we judge them for a level of fault that we don’t ac­tu­ally know any­thing about?”

She’s aware, too, that once they heal, the dan­ger isn’t over.

“What’s the com­mu­nity that they’re go­ing back to?” she asks.

Af­ter “sav­ing them in the throes of a crit­i­cal vi­o­lent in­jury, does it re­ally mean the same thing if I know that kid is likely to grow up in a neigh­bor­hood where they can get shot again?”

These ques­tions haunt her. So does her in­abil­ity to have a broader in­flu­ence on curb­ing vi­o­lence.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s within my power to change it. So all I can do ... is patch them up and send them out,” she says. “And that’s not enough for me any­more.”

Dr. Cather­ine Hu­mikowski works at the Univer­sity of Chicago Comer Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal, which saw about 50 chil­dren with gun­shot wounds. Ki­ichiro Sato, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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