ST. LOUIS — With three months still left in the year, the two leading children’s hospitals in St. Louis have both broken annual records for the number of young patients treated for gunshot wounds.
At St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s trauma center, 105 patients ranging from infants to 20 years old have been treated for gunshot wounds so far in 2020, the highest number the hospital has ever recorded.
“We used to see a child come in with a gunshot wound about once a week,” said Dr. Lindsay Clukies, a pediatric trauma surgeon with Washington University at St. Louis Children’s. “That’s already much higher than most pediatric hospitals that can count on one hand the number of gunshot injuries they see in a year. This year, we’re seeing one of these patients about every 2.5 days.”
Hospital has changed its approach to trauma care by putting more focus on prevention
About three miles away, SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital has treated 75 children and young adults ages 2 to 18 for gunshot wounds this year, also the highest on record at the hospital.
Staff at Children’s and Cardinal Glennon say the increases in cases began to materialize at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We could see the pandemic in the data,” said Josh Dugal, manager of Cardinal Glennon’s trauma, EMS and injury prevention programs. “Whenever the national emergency was declared by the president, you can see people stopped coming into the ER for minor complaints, but severe things like bullet wounds went up significantly.”
The elevated numbers also came amid a rise in violence that’s hit St. Louis during the pandemic, a trend that’s been recorded in urban areas throughout the country.
So far in 2020, St. Louis is on pace for the most homicides in 25 years and the highest homicide rate by population on record. Of the city’s 198 killings recorded as of Wednesday, at least 16 have been juveniles, according to St. Louis police and reporting by the Post-Dispatch.
But staff at the children’s hospitals, including Rinada Bailey, a Victim of Violence program youth mentor at St. Louis Children’s hospital, see the cases as more than numbers.
The program assigns social workers like Bailey to be mentors to those ages 7 to 19 who have survived a violent event or major trauma. The mentors can provide counseling and connect patients to other services, including help in school or employment that could allow them to recover and avoid future violence.
“It took me back the first time I got a referral for an 8-year-old who was shot in a drive-by,” said Bailey, a St. Louis native. “When you have to walk into a room and talk with a child going through this, it hits you different. You have this new awareness of the state of St. Louis.”
Children in St. Louis have been killed at 10 times the national rate for decades, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis. One St. Louis grandma, Emma Harrington, lost two children who called her ‘granny’ 17 years apart.
Bailey works with kids and teenagers for six months to a year. The service is free through funding from donations and grants.
About 23% of eligible patients enroll and there are typically 40 to 50 people in the program, said Warren Hayden, a consultant who helps oversee Victim of Violence.
“We’ve found that the moment after you go through something like getting shot is a teachable moment, so we want to get them enrolled as quickly as possible,” Hayden said.
The mentors have a more personal relationship than a traditional hospital case worker. Bailey said it helps that she has relatives in some neighborhoods where she visits kids and even recently visited the middle school she attended for a child who was recovering from a gunshot wound.
“It makes you realize, ‘I could have been in the exact same place when I was a kid,’” she said.
The two hospitals, along with others in the city, also receive money for a social worker through Life Outside of Violence, funded by the Missouri Foundation for Health, which provides counseling to people into their early 20s who have been affected by violence.
St. Louis Children’s and Cardinal Glennon also have education initiatives to limit accidental shootings, which make up a significant number of the gunshot injuries to children.
Clukies, with St. Louis Children’s, said typically about 30% of the hospital’s gun injuries are considered accidental. This year both accidental and violence-related shootings have increased, but shootings related to violence are making up a higher percentage of cases at Children’s, Clukies said.
“There’s been a national increase in gun sales so that indicates people are changing their firearm behaviors so that could play a role in the rise of accidental shootings,” Clukies said. “They are also most likely to happen at home, and children have been staying home more.”
Clukies said St. Louis Children’s will soon start asking all visitors to its emergency room if their family owns firearms and will offer free locks to all gun owners.
Cardinal Glennon also has a gun-lock giveaway program that gave out about 900 locks last year.
Cardinal Glennon’s Dugal said the hospital is continuing to think of ways to prevent young patients from facing gun violence.
“This year we’ve seen teens come in with not their first but their second gunshot wound,” Dugal said. “That should never happen. We do know that trauma never stops but we’re trying to figure out a way to slow it in the community around us.”