gun violence

At 17, He Was Hit by a Stray Bullet. Now, He's a Trauma Surgeon at Johns Hopkins

Dr. Joseph Sakran hopes his personal experience with gun violence inspires change among others

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A surgeon hopes his personal experience with gun violence inspires change among others.

Dr. Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins, was hit by a stray bullet when he was in high school. Despite permanent damage to his vocal cords, he speaks up and shares his story to break the cycle of violence that plagues the streets.

At 17, he was just starting his senior year at Lake Braddock High School in Burke, Virginia, and had just been to his high school football game and was with friends at a nearby playground when a stray bullet from someone else’s disagreement suddenly struck him.

“I went from being a healthy, 17-year-old high school student to collateral damage after I was shot in the throat with a .38-caliber bullet,” he said. “My entire life changed.”

He underwent multiple surgeries and spent weeks in the hospital but recovered grateful to be alive and determined to make the most of his second chance.

After 28 years, Sakran remembers it as the worst day of his life but also says it was the most impactful day of his life. The care he got after he was shot inspired him to pursue a career as a trauma surgeon. Now he’s in charge of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

“My vision was that I just want to be able to give someone else the same second chance that I was given,” he said.

While his work is difficult – putting in 24-hour shifts – each day reminds him of the devastating cost of gun violence.

“Every day we're having to explain to, you know, moms and dads and to loved ones that their child that left that morning is never coming home again, and when I think about that, I just, honestly, a piece of me dies every time,” he said.

Gun violence is the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the U.S. Those who survive a shooting face grim odds – 40% will end up back in the hospital with another gunshot wound within five years.

Sakran sees that as an opportunity to intervene.

“As a survivor, I'm able to build that kind of rapport because they know that I understand what they've been through in some ways,” he said. 

He also works to bring change outside the operating room as founder of Docs Demand Action, a group of physicians calling for tighter gun legislation, including universal background checks.

“We have both the opportunity and the responsibility to be part of that change beyond simply the four walls of the hospital,” he said.

“This is not a Democratic issue; it's not a Republican issue,” Sakran said. “This is a uniquely American issue that we face. So, I think we have to kind of move beyond, you know, the divisive and partisan rhetoric and talk about what are we doing to protect our children.”

Sakran has traveled all over the country sharing his story to raise awareness about gun violence. He believes the best way to save lives is to prevent the violence from happening in the first place.

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