Speaking up about the unspeakable

The right to bear arms has existed since we became a nation. So, too, has the risk of violence that extensive gun ownership creates in our society. 

Unfortunately, recent mass shooting incidents, fueled by hatred or mental illness, have sparked a great deal of fear and confusion among Americans.  

As healthcare leaders, our concern centers on the treatment of those who are victims of senseless gun violence. And not just those who are shot, but the other victims as well.

Healthcare providers must care for all victims — the ones who are traumatized because a loved one has been hurt or lost, the ones who were at the chaotic scene of the violence, or who are haunted by the endless media stories they cannot seem to tune out. The emotional toll of this violence is incomprehensible.

Healthcare facilities attempt to provide refuge from violence and seek to provide healing and hope to all victims of violence. 

And yet, sadly, we are not immune to being another venue for violence

Unstable individuals with guns and other weapons of harm find their way into our buildings and hallways as well. Earlier this month, a man who blamed his physician for ongoing pain after a recent back surgery shot and killed his surgeon and three other people before fatally shooting himself in a Tulsa, Okla., medical facility. Also this month, a hospital security officer was shot and killed by a prison inmate who was receiving care in a Dayton, Ohio, emergency room.

These incidents are the latest horrifying tragedies in a wave of deadly gun violence occurring across our country, including two heart-breaking mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas. We mention these tragedies not to make a political statement, but to raise awareness of the consequences of this violence on healthcare providers and the public health. 

As healthcare workers, healers, and caregivers, we work to fix what is broken and put people back together. We bring solutions. We engage with our hearts to stand together in the fear and vulnerabilities of those who need us so that we can help them through difficult challenges. We look to bring light to dark situations. We seek to be beacons of hope. 

The escalation of recent shootings, suicides and other violent behaviors underscores the urgency for a national conversation on what has become a serious public health crisis. We believe health systems have a credible voice and can play a critical role beyond being places to physically and emotionally care for the victims of violence.

It's easy to allow ourselves to become numb to the frequency of these unconscionable, violent acts. But we owe it to present and future generations not to let that happen. We recognize there are no easy answers to this national problem. After all, we are dealing with abnormal behavior — the decision to seriously harm or kill other people. That this behavior is increasing calls for something to be done to effect positive change.

People across our country and the communities we serve are hurting and vulnerable. Many people are weary from the pandemic that has impacted our hearts and our health. Violence and death, and particularly mass shootings, hit adults hard. Now consider what the prevalence and threat of school shootings have done to an entire generation of children, who are growing up with the fear of being shot and killed in a place they should feel safe.

We all can play a role. Recently, our two organizations decided to do something to reduce gun violence by sponsoring a law enforcement gun buyback program to help get guns off the street. This effort was part of the largest single-day gun buyback in New Jersey state history. It successfully removed over 2,800 guns statewide. Private organizations, companies, and individuals must think of additional creative ways beyond criticizing politicians, to bring about the change we need. 

We encourage organizations and communities to come together, to pool their minds and their resources to address gun violence in society as the urgent public health crisis that it is. We must create meaningful public health campaigns around the safe storage and handling of firearms, and sensible and innovative ways to prevent gun violence in schools, healthcare settings and public places. Individuals should educate themselves on the issues surrounding gun violence so they may contribute to the effort to bring about necessary and meaningful change.  

And yes, we need to accelerate efforts around our nation's mental health crisis. We know from the data and what we are all experiencing that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated what was already a growing nationwide mental health crisis. 

Violence against any person in any venue is unspeakable. Yet just because it is unspeakable does not mean we should not speak up about it. Let us put our anger, shock and heartbreak into positive change. With the same unstoppable resolution that we seek to cure cancer or slow heart disease, let us advocate, educate and take meaningful action to end gun violence and all senseless violence that is taking such a tragic toll on our nation and our wellbeing.  

Mr. Pullin is president and CEO of Virtua Health. Dr. Mazzarelli and Mr. O'Dowd are co-presidents and CEOs of Cooper University Health Care.

About Virtua Health
Virtua Health is an academic health system committed to helping the people of South Jersey be well, get well, and stay well by providing the complete spectrum of advanced, accessible, and trusted healthcare services. Virtua's 14,000 colleagues provide tertiary care, including renowned cardiology and transplant programs, complemented by a community-based care portfolio. In addition to five hospitals, two satellite emergency departments, 30 ambulatory surgery centers, and more than 300 other locations, Virtua brings health services directly into communities through Hospital at Home, physical therapy and rehabilitation, mobile screenings, and its paramedic program. Virtua has 2,850 affiliated doctors and other clinicians, and its specialties include orthopedics, advanced surgery, and maternity. Virtua is academically affiliated with Rowan University, leading research, innovation, and immersive education at the Virtua Health College of Medicine & Health Sciences of Rowan University. Virtua is also affiliated with Penn Medicine for cancer and neuroscience, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for pediatrics. As a not-for-profit, Virtua is committed to the well-being of the community and provides innovative outreach programs that address social challenges affecting health, most notably the "Eat Well" food access initiative, which includes the unparalleled Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store. A Magnet-recognized health system ranked by U.S. News and World Report, Virtua has received many awards for quality, safety, and its outstanding work environment. For more information, visit Virtua.org. To help Virtua make a difference, visit GiveToVirtua.org.

About Cooper University Health Care
Cooper University Health Care is a leading academic health system with more 8,500 employees and more than 800 employed physicians. Cooper University Hospital is the only Level 1 Trauma Center in South Jersey and the busiest in the region.  Annually, nearly two million patients are served at Cooper's 635-bed flagship hospital, outpatient surgery center, three urgent care centers, and more than 105 ambulatory offices throughout the community. The Cooper Health Sciences campus is home to Cooper University Hospital, MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper, Children's Regional Hospital at Cooper, and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. Visit CooperHealth.org to learn more.

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