NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Therapists and chaplains have been busy at the two hospitals that treat young gunshot victims in Hampton Roads. Nine of the victims in five recent area shootings have been under 18.
When a gunshot victim is 15, 16 or 17, they’re typically treated at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where therapist Colette Edmondson says one of her first steps is finding out more about the young patient.
“It’s usually a trauma story, like growing up poor, not finishing high school,” Edmondson said.
She’s on the lookout for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, other stress disorders, flashbacks and nightmares. Edmondson also comforts the parents and siblings, who often fear they could be next.
“[They ask] What will happen to me? How do I protect myself?” she said.
Edmondson says it’s her job to assure them that they’ll be safe.
Younger gunshot victims go to Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.
“We usually say this to parents when they walk through the door: ‘My job is to take care of you while the team is taking care of the child,'” said Mike Garren, CHKD’s managing chaplain.
Garren says he gives the parents a chance to talk to someone during the uncertainty of trauma care involving their loved one.
“When they’re in this kind of circumstance, people want to emote. They can sit down with me and say ‘This is terrible, and this is what I’ve experienced, and this is the trauma I’m going through while my child is going through this trauma,'” Garren said.
Young gunshot victims often suffer from ongoing emotional trauma long after the violence. Edmondson says the parents have their own problems.
“Usually it’s a lot of guilt and remorse from the parents. [They say] ‘I should have protected my child better,'” Edmondson said.
She has seen many young gunshot victims leave the hospital paralyzed.
“The ones who walk away are very, very lucky,” she explained.
Edmondson tells parents to get therapy and counseling and don’t be ashamed about it. For their kids, she advises parents to utilize school counselors, and get the child involved in activities and sports to help them thrive.
Garren says 90% of his job is listening: being a sounding board for parents while their child is in critical care.
“We help them push that emotion out to talk about it, to help them understand the process of what’s going on with their child,” Garren said.
In a trauma situation, CHKD will set up a chair right outside the room for parents, so they can see what’s going on with their child’s care.
“If the family’s religious, a lot of times we’ll pray with them. We’ll say a prayer together,” Garren said.
And when a child dies from a shooting, Garren gets the toughest of all questions: How could God let this happen?
“Normally what I say, and I can’t speak for every chaplain out there, is ‘I don’t know. I don’t know why this happened and how it happened this way,'” he said.
CHKD has a staff of 10 chaplains, and one is specially certified in bereavement. The hospital has another source of comfort when a young child dies in a shooting called the Heartbeat Bear. It’s a stuffed animal with a microchip that has a recording of their child’s heartbeat that they can keep as a memory.