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