Police surgeons in European countries are forensic pathologists who perform autopsies and investigate crime scenes. In this country, police surgeons are drawn from a variety of medical specialties and are responsible for the well-being of police officers.
About a year ago, I was sworn in as a police surgeon and was assigned a medical district to which I would report daily. There, I would see members of the service who had called in sick, reviewing their care and their ability to return to work. I was also placed in a rotation with my fellow surgeons to be on call twice a month in case an officer is hospitalized. In those instances, a police surgeon must report to the hospital to see the injured officer.
My weekday trauma call begins at 6 p.m. and ends at 8 a.m. the next day. On a recent morning, the phone rang at 5:31 and I knew instinctively that it was the sick desk -- the police command center that receives injury reports. The sergeant on the other end of the line proceeded to tell me that an officer had been shot and was taken to a local hospital. He said that the officer was "not likely."
What he meant was that the officer was not likely to die. I had heard this expression for the first time about a month earlier, when I was asked to see an officer who had been severely injured in a motorcycle accident. "They say he's likely," the sergeant said. I paused, "Does that mean . . . ?" "Right, he's likely," he repeated.
I asked for the specifics on this incident -- the officer's name, if he was still in the ER, whether he was in surgery. "We don't have much . . . no details . . . but he's in the ER." The sergeant said he was going to call the chief police surgeon, who oversees the medical division of the police department, and I told him that I would call in to the sick desk after I got to the hospital.
As I drove, I thought about what I might encounter. In fact, I had been thinking of this for months. Shootings occur frequently, so I knew it was inevitable that I would hear the words "cop shot" on my watch. How would I handle it? The job of a police surgeon is to ensure that an injured member of the force is receiving the best possible care. I would have to quickly assess the medical condition of the injured officer as well as how the hospital was addressing his injuries. To do this, I would need information from the physicians caring for him. On my most recent call, I had had no problem gathering information, but this had not been true of all the hospitals I had visited.
From my previous calls, I also knew that I would encounter a contingent of officers outside and in the hospital, and that the more serious the injury, the greater their number. I expected to see patrol cars lined up outside of the ER. I was also certain to meet the officer's family at the bedside. Having watched the local news for many years, I knew that for a life-threatening injury the police commissioner and the mayor would likely be there. My fellow police surgeons had told me that the chief police surgeon would probably see any serious gunshot injury, in which case I might not be needed.
"How bad is this guy?" I thought.
I got the answer from my car radio. "A police officer was shot early this morning . . . ." I turned up the volume. The reporter described the officer as "lucky," saying someone had fired on him from a roof top and that the bullet had hit him in the arm. I breathed a little easier as I drove. My first shooting would be a minor wound. I thought about what I'd say to the officer when I met him.
After about 35 minutes and one wrong turn, I was within two blocks of the hospital when my car phone rang. It was the sick desk. "Dr. Adams, what's your location?" "I'm just arriving at the hospital." The sergeant sounded disappointed. "I was hoping to catch you before you got there. The officer was not seriously wounded. It was a scratch," he said emphatically. "The bullet just grazed him. He was released 10 minutes ago. . . . Oh, and the chief surgeon got there and saw him. He appreciates your effort."
Waiting for the call
I made a left turn and headed toward my medical district, where I would see officers who had reported sick. My role as police surgeon was becoming more familiar to me. With my 30 years in practice, I was comfortable dealing with illness, hospitals and concerned friends and family, but I was not yet accustomed to violence and violent injuries.
I was relieved that the officer was not seriously injured, but I also knew that one day I would be called for a more serious, even fatal injury. Sadly, I know that call is coming. I know it's likely.
Dr. Francis V. Adams is a pulmonologist in New York City and the author of "The Asthma Sourcebook" and "Healing Through Empathy."