How doctors, paramedics respond to high rate of gun violence in New Mexico

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There are endless debates over what to do about it, but one thing is clear: New Mexico has a problem with gun violence. The state has higher rates of gun deaths than the U.S., and doctors and paramedics here see it firsthand almost every day.

In 2018, New Mexico had its most violent year of gun deaths in more than a century, according to preliminary data from a state Department of Health report. On top of that, Albuquerque Police say the city averaged 13 non-fatal shootings a week.

NM Dept. of Health Epidemiology Report

It sparked talks this year to start researching this as a public health issue and invest in more gunshot detection systems and robotic DNA analysis.

“Automation will increase efficiencies, resulting in additional investigative leads, charges and subsequent prosecution,” APD Scientific Evidence Division Commander Christopher George said at a press conference in April.

For gunshot victims, paramedics are often the first to step in to help.

“This is our trauma bag that will come standard on all of our rescues, all of our fire ambulance units,” AFR Paramedic Supervisor Clint Anderson said as he displayed the equipment paramedics use.

Anderson said paramedics make up a third of Albuquerque Fire Rescue, and most calls AFR gets are medical.

“This municipality has a lot of violence,” he said. “On the fortunate side, it’s enough to where it has really honed the skills of our first responders.”

They’re geared up for active shooter situations.

“Specifically on this truck, we have a total of six vests and six tactical helmets,” Anderson pointed out.

AFR is also offering free public training on CPR and using tourniquets, when bleeding control is critical.

Anyone interested in the Lifesaver Training course can contact AFR online or reach the administrative offices at 505-768-9300.

“Any arterial bleed, someone can bleed out and die within minutes,” Anderson said.

An ambulance typically takes patients to UNM Hospital’s trauma room one. Emergency Medicine Department Chair Dr. Steve McLaughlin walked us through it.

“We have over here, our equipment for airway management if we need to put a breathing tube in,” Dr. McLaughlin said.

He has more than 24 years of experience here.

“It’s unpredictable and at times chaotic,” Dr. McLaughlin explained.

He said, usually, doctors don’t learn details about the shootings that landed a patient in their hospital until later, often on the news.

“I think for a lot of people, that’s where you actually start to feel that emotional stress,” Dr. McLaughlin said.

Still, he said about two-thirds of gunshot victims do survive. And to better those odds, they’re constantly upgrading techniques and technology. He pointed out an ultrasound machine for example.

“This is an indispensable piece of equipment that five years ago we didn’t have, and now we can’t get along without it.”

On top of improving ways to save victims of gun violence, he’s thinking about prevention.

“When it becomes a chronic problem you’re seeing all the time, your mindset starts to shift a little bit, though, to how can we stop this?”

NM Dept. of Health Epidemiology Report

Data from the state shows about two-thirds of all gun deaths are from suicide. And while there is information on how many people are shot to death each year and under what circumstances, Dr. McLaughlin hopes to see more research from public health institutions into what is causing it.

“If you think about things like diabetes, if you think about things like… other infectious diseases. There’s a lot of money that goes into figuring out what works to prevent these things and what doesn’t. We really haven’t had that for gun violence over the last 10 years,” he said.

Doctors nationwide calling for more research say it should be about scientific evidence, not politics. However, historically, Republicans have opposed federal spending to study the prevention of gun violence, believing the research would just advocate for gun control.

So for now, seeing victims of gun violence nearly every day is just part of the job for doctors and paramedics here in New Mexico.

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