Robert McCartney | Doctor takes a stand on more than just guns

September 21, 2013 

For too many years, Janis Orlowski has seen the victims wheeled into her hospitals. First in Chicago and now in Washington. Young men killed or wounded in gun violence.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked into the emergency room and seen principally a dead young man lying on the cart,” said the senior administrator at the District of Columbia’s largest trauma clinic.

“We are violent, we are aggressive, and we kill our own. That’s what I see,” she said.

On Monday, it was too much, especially after other recent mass shootings — Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook. She couldn’t remain silent.

Orlowski, 57, spoke up at the end of a news conference where she was briefing the media on treatment of people wounded in the Navy Yard shooting, which left 13 dead, including the gunman.

In unplanned comments that instantly made her an Internet and television celebrity, she used plain, direct language typical of her rural Wisconsin upbringing.

The “senseless trauma” is “something evil in our society,” Orlowski said. She urged the public: “Put my trauma center out of business. ... I would like to not be an expert on gunshots.”

Orlowski’s dramatic plea drew praise especially from supporters of gun control. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a one-dimensional anti-gun advocate.

Yes, the doctor would support stricter gun laws. But she stressed that legislation is not “the sole answer.”

Instead, as she explained in a one-hour interview Tuesday, the remedy must be broader.

“I don’t believe that if you have gun control, then the world is good. I believe it’s a combination of how we view guns, how they’re available in our society, what we do with mental health, what we do with those people who find themselves on the fringes of society,” Orlowski said.

To rely only on the government, she said, “is in some ways a cop out.”

Orlowski said it was critical for society as a whole to identify and treat people suffering from aggression, post-traumatic stress or other mental-health problems.

She felt moved to speak Monday partly because she remembered a conversation with a friend, also a doctor, who helped treat victims of the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson. The 22-year-old gunman, who severely wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“The doctor I spoke with basically said, ‘Janis, if we had mental health available to our citizens, we wouldn’t need this trauma center,' ” Orlowski said.

Purely by coincidence, Orlowski’s news conference came a few hours after she had given notice that she will resign from her positions as chief medical officer and chief operating officer at Medstar Washington Hospital Center.

I think Orlowski’s original comments had such impact because she appreciates both the depth and the complexity of the problem.

Her nuanced views spring partly from her experience as one of eight children in Mount Pleasant, Wis. Her father hunted, and everybody in the community was familiar with firearms and the proper way to handle them.

“Gun safety was something that was taught,” she said. Bad behavior with guns “wasn’t just forbidden by your parents, but it was forbidden by society,” she said.

Orlowski got her first extended experience with the human cost of gun violence while working for 22 years at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She has seen more of it since she moved to Washington in 2004.

For someone with such a high-powered job (she oversees a staff of 6,000) she comes across as friendly and unpretentious.

Orlowski lives in Georgetown with her husband, an electrical engineer who was her “college sweetheart” at Marquette University. They have a 25-year-old son. For relaxation, she reads, knits and is a “rabid” fan of the Green Bay Packers.

She said she “loves, loves” her current job but is leaving for a position at a nonprofit organization (not yet announced), also in Washington. That will allow her to work on health-policy issues that interest her and maybe reduce her current workload of 80 to 100 hours a week.

Although she hadn’t planned to say the words that made her famous, Orlowski was glad she did. She thinks it’s important to treat gun violence as a public-health issue, as well as a socio-economic one.

“If the chief medical officer of the largest trauma and burn unit of Washington, D.C., doesn’t say something about this societal ill, who does?” Orlowski said. “I probably should have done more of this. I chide myself for not doing more.”

She’s done plenty.

Orlowski has set an example for passionate, thoughtful advocacy that other leaders in medicine and elsewhere should emulate.

Robert McCartney is a Washington Post columnist.

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