Waltkeem Jenkins still feels traumatized after being jumped five times as a teenager in South Philadelphia, and robbed once at gunpoint.
His hardship, though, gives him credibility with patients at Philadelphia hospitals trying to better treat the lingering wounds of violent crime.
As Philadelphia endures another year of near-record killings and nonfatal shootings, Temple University Hospital, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, and Einstein Medical Center are among the city hospitals adding staffers such as Jenkins who can address the emotional, as well as physical, toll of violent crime.
A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania involving Black men found that almost half of those hurt either intentionally or in an accident experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or both within three months of their injury. Hospital workers who share these experiences can speak directly to the feelings of isolation that may overwhelm people after an injury. They are invaluable messengers to connect them to mental health support and other services.
The need for such services has accelerated along with the pace of shootings in the city. Last year, more than a third of Philadelphia’s nonfatal shooting victims were age 24 or younger, according to Philadelphia Police Department data, and about 75% of people shot in Philadelphia since 2015 have been Black men.
“Pre-COVID, many of our assaults or injuries were school-based fights. In the last two years, we’ve seen a huge increase in gun violence,” said Laura Vega, who codirects the violence intervention program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has offered peer support for young victims of violence since 2016.
Jenkins uses his experiences to bond with the patients he works with at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. As a teen, he believed that he couldn’t talk with family about the anxiety and depression that followed his multiple violent assaults, a common experience.
He starts building relationships with the injured with easy chats about hobbies, music, or sports. Not all are willing to accept help.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with me,” some tell him. “I’m fine.”
Jenkins’ work with a single patient can last months. He and a therapist visit homes of children after they’re discharged from the hospital. His conversations with patients can go deep — discussing the consequences if a youth is considering retaliation, and encouraging those recovering from wounds to open up about what makes them feel unsafe.
“The worst you can do when you talk to a client is say you know what they’re going through and then you don’t,” he said. “That’s a sign of disrespect.”
Assault is just the beginning
Trauma can be caused by the injury itself, as well as the lifesaving but invasive medical treatments that follow, Penn researchers found in a study of 623 injured Black men published this spring in the journal Injury. Black men have also described feeling stigmatized or viewed without empathy in rehabilitation settings because of their race, another 2022 study noted in the journal Social Science and Medicine.
Many of the men in the Penn study also expressed helplessness and suicidal thoughts.
“We asked people why they chose to enter a research study. It was for human connection,” said coauthor Therese Richmond, a Penn professor of nursing who studies the emotional effects of serious injuries.
Hospitals’ liaisons, often called intervention specialists, serve as a combination of confidante, social worker and counselor. They can help patients replace the cards in a stolen wallet or get a driver’s license. They may also provide assistance to find relocation funds, seek additional mental health support, or enroll in a GED program.
Rodney Babb, 26, began work in August as an intervention specialist with Penn Presbyterian with a goal of supporting his patients with “whatever their need is to get back to a normal life after being shot.”
The work often begins in hospital rooms with people still recovering from serious injuries. Building a connection there is critical, said Arturo Zinny, director of Drexel University’s Healing Hurt People, one of the first organizations in the city to bring credible messengers from Philadelphia communities to hospitals.
“People very rarely seek services on their own,” he said.
Becoming a victim of violent crime can shatter the person’s sense of self. Those first interactions between a victim and supportive peer in the hospital can ease emotional barriers.
“They were going about their normal lives when something terrible happened,” said Elinore Kaufman, a trauma surgeon who works with Penn Presbyterian’s outreach program.
People often are discharged from the hospital back to the neighborhood where they were wounded and fear that home is no longer safe.
An opportunity to talk and find support would have been invaluable to Mitchell Robinson. He was numb and angry after being shot in the shoulder and leg when he was 15 by someone who wanted his Christmas gift, a new leather trench coat.
“Some of the people go through a deep, dark thing,” said Robinson, 47, now an antiviolence activist for Philadelphia Cease Fire.
Shootings on the rise
Philadelphia’s fatal and nonfatal shootings in 2022 are trending similar to the record numbers reported in 2021, according to Philadelphia Police Department data. As of April 25, 528 people have survived shootings in the city this year.
Nationally, injuries from firearms in recent years have surpassed automobile accidents as the leading cause of death in children and young adults.
These trends have prompted an increase in funding for violence intervention programs, according to Scott Charles, the trauma outreach manager at Temple, which is hiring its first dedicated intervention specialist with a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
“We find ourselves in desperate times,” Charles said.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health participates in the Hospital Based Violence Intervention Collaborative involving six city trauma hospitals. The city provides more than $208,000 to Healing Hurt People, the pioneering Drexel University program, through the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility Services. Other programs draw support from a range of sources including federal, state, and local grants.
Hospitals starting their intervention programs may have as few as one specialist for the time-intensive work of connecting clients with services.
In the Philadelphia region, the wait to see a therapist can be months long, according to Jenkins, who has worked at St. Christopher’s as a community health worker for two years.
Oronde McClain, 32, thinks such services may have helped when he was shot in the head at age 10. He was hospitalized for seven months with brain injuries and still struggles to control his emotions. He thought that those closest to him couldn’t relate.
“I’m just angry because I got shot and I can’t live a normal life,” said McClain, now an antiviolence advocate who works at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center as a psych tech.
“You don’t know what I’m going through” was his response when people tried to connect. “You never got shot before.”