'I just finished sewing up a dead boy'

The headline above is the first line of Dr. Mauricio Heilbron Jr.'s Op-Ed piece in today's Long Beach Press-Telegram. The boy is the 11-year-old who was cut down Sunday night in a Long Beach gang shooting. Powerful piece. Here's the start:

I pronounced him dead at 10:34 p.m. Sunday. It's now 11:27 p.m. I know I won't be able to get to sleep for a long time. I feel like I shouldn't.

I'm a trauma surgeon at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. I was sulking in my call room on Palm Sunday because I missed yet another important moment in my 5-year-old son's life. A tarantula crawled all over him at his best friend's birthday party, and my wife had e-mailed me a glorious photo of this big, hairy arachnid on my son's face. The phone rings, and I am summoned to the ER for a "gunshot wound to the chest." That's bad, but around these parts, sadly not a surprise. Then the ER secretary adds, "... in a 12-year-old." That changes things a bit. As I hurry down to the Emergency Department, I play out several horrific scenarios in my head - a mental exercise in preparation for what certainly was to be a difficult situation.

[skip]

The ER doctor hands me the knife, as if to say, "Here. It's yours." I think the kid is dead, or if not dead, then he certainly is "unsalvageable," which is a horrible word to use for a human being. I don't think he's fixable. However, if he is to have any hope of survival, the only way to save him is to crack him open and try to plug up the holes. Cracking open an 11-year-old boy (he was two months shy of his 12th birthday) is going to tear my own heart in half, I think to myself, but this is part of what I do, so I slip the gloves on and take the knife.

Here's the rest. Heilbron is chief of surgery at Little Company of Mary Hospital in San Pedro and a trauma surgeon at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. And a parent.


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