The gang banger was coughing blood. His entire left side was stitched with AK-47 holes, from thigh to collar bone.
“His lung is filling with blood,” said the ER doc. “We’re gonna need to drain it.”
The emergency room cubicle was impossible to maneuver in, barely enough space for the gurney, the trauma doc, a nurse, and me. The producer who’d decided to accompany me on this research recon was nowhere to be seen, still looking for a vending machine that sold chewing gum.
“What I’m going to do,” explained the physician, who I’ll call Dr. Gun Shot, “is cut a hole between his ribs over here and insert a tube I can use to drain his lung.”
He asked the nurse for some lidocaine then snapped his fingers at me.
“Hypo and a twenty-five!” he barked at me. I must’ve had a “what me?” look on my face, because he pointed to a drawer off my right hip. “In there. A syringe and a number twenty-five gauge needle.” His fingers flexed as if to say “gimme now.”
I wanted to reply, “Hey, I’m just the writer” or “Thought I was just here to observe.” But like I said, there was barely enough real estate to navigate. So I popped open the drawer and fished for the disposable syringe packet and a twenty-five gauge needle.
“Toss ‘em,” said Dr. Gun Shot. “C’mon. Can’t hurt ‘em worse than those AK rounds he took.”
The gang banger, a muscular youth of seventeen years or so, continued to hack blood into the air. With the needle, Dr. Gun Shot syringed the lidocaine just beneath the skin where he planned to insert the tube. He asked me for a scalpel, which I found in the drawer just above where the syringe had been. In a matter of seconds, Dr. Gun Shot had unsheathed the blade and was cutting a hole between two of the gang banger’s ribs. I’m not a doc, but I’d received enough topical numbing agents in my accident-prone life to know that the scalpel was venturing well beyond the analgesic’s threshold.
“MOTHERFUCKER!!!” The gang banger howled from the sharp and unexpected intrusion. He screamed and began to buck off the gurney.
“Hold his legs!” the doc yelled at me.
Without time to question the order, I grabbed hold and threw my weight into pinning the banger’s legs. The banshee shouts of pain still cut through me.
“Can’t you give him anything?” I asked the doc.
“I could,” said Dr. Gun Shot, beginning to painfully fish the tube through the canal he just drilled in the man’s side. “But if he’s screamin’ he’s breathin’. And if he’s breathin’ he’s still alive.”
If he’s screamin’ he’s breathin’.
Can’t describe how those words have stuck with me through the years. Or just about anything else that happened on that particular Friday night at the Martin Luther King hospital in South Los Angeles, in a zip code also known as Watts.
I was researching a movie I was writing for Warner Brothers. My primary character was a Gulf War field surgeon sent to an inner-city hospital as a way to bone up on treating gun shot victims. As it turned out, one of the three hospitals in the country most adept in handling high volume bullet trauma was LA’s own MLK. The movie’s assigned producer, a affable fellow we’ll call Sherman Sample, had his office set up the evening’s activity. Somehow, he seemed to think we’d be over and done with our ghetto sortie in time to catch The Tonight Show.
Immediately upon our arrival we were greeted by Dr. Gun Shot, a wooly man who appeared to have been cast directly out of a M*A*S*H* remake, complete with a white, medical overcoat barely concealing a flowery aloha shirt tucked into his Dockers. Despite his rather comedic look, Dr. Gun Shot was considered one of the country’s foremost experts on treating bullet wounds. This was evidenced by his personal business card on which–I jest you not-was pictured a professionally photographed target silhouette backlit with streaks of light sizzling through magnum-sized bullet holes.
“I’m glad you picked a Friday night,” he said during our initial tour of the remarkably small facility. “Generally speaking, we get most of our business on the weekends.”
“Emergency room business?” I tried to confirm.
“Gun shot business,” he said. The giddy doc went on to break down the numbers. Of the five hundred plus murders a year in the City of Angels (a number that has been roughly halved since then) most were both gun and gang related. As unmanageable as that sounded, it was a pittance when it came to injuries. Because of good doctors like Dr. Gun Shot and modern advances in medicine, only ten percent of victims due to gun violence actually perish from their injuries.
“So do the math,” Dr. Gun Shot explained. “Five hundred plus murders means north of five thousand gun shot victims landing in LA emergency rooms. That’s every year. Divide that by the number of days, the high propensity for violence in the one sector you’re standing in right now, we should expect ten to fifteen victims tonight alone.”
“Bullet wounds,” I clarified. “By guns.”
“And that doesn’t even count the bleeders we’ll get as a result of knife fights and baseball bats and Lord knows what else the locals use for doing violence.”
The numbers were absolutely numbing.
Nearing midnight, after already having witnessed a steady stream of bloodied victims due to all matter of weaponry, that young gang banger had arrived via ambulance. The LAPD cop that came with him announced that the victim had been strafed in a drive-by. The shooter was said to have been firing an AK-47 assault rifle.
“An AK-47!” shouted a caffeine-excited Dr. Gun Shot. “Holy shit. Where the hell’s my camera?”
“Camera?” I accidentally asked aloud.
“AK’s are rare!” he exclaimed. “I don’t have any decent pictures of AK wounds!”
The gang banger had been struck five times. The wounds, surprisingly clean, looked like stars torn out of the flesh. With his camera, Dr. Gun Shot focused on the best examples of each wound, describing to me the intricacies of identifying certain caliber characteristics and what kind of damage differing projectiles can do to a human body.
Some would’ve been sick. I was fascinated, enlightened, and strangely buoyed by the non-stop effervescence of the trauma doc. While he seemed altogether overjoyed by the science of repairing said wounds, I was damn glad physicians like him had taken such keen interest in the subject. Without them, survival rates would’ve been closer to the likes of what we saw in World War I.
The prospects for the gang member were good. In all likelihood he was going to survive to bang or otherwise another day. Jonesing for a cigar, I made do by sharing a cigarette break with that LAPD cop who’d escorted the gang banger to the ER. As we stood outside, he pointed out all the painted-over bullet holes that pock-marked the entrance.
“It’s like the Middle East down here,” he said. “Hey, when you headed back to the Valley?”
“Sherman wants to bug out,” I said, speaking of the often absent producer. “So soon I think.”
“If I were you I wouldn’t be drivin’ out of here until after four in the morning” he advised.
“Why?” I asked.
“Two white boys in a Mercedes?” he said. “Kinda stand out. Gang bangin’ and such out here nose-dives around four a.m. I’d wait.”
“And if he doesn’t wanna wait?” I asked. “My producer pal has a bad script he probably wants to read.”
“Got a gun with you?” asked the cop.
“If I did,” I surmised, “Wouldn’t that be illegal? Car? Concealed weapon?”
“Some situations down here? Only way out is to shoot your way out. Sorry to say but it’s true life. Cop’s can’t protect you. We’re only around in time to clean up the mess.”
I nodded that I understood and relayed the police officer’s feelings to Sherman. Unfortunately, the producer preferred to risk it in order to catch himself a few more hours of sleep. And since he drove. Well. How we got out is another story.
Like way too many from that period, the subsequent movie I wrote for Warner Brothers ended up in their vast and seemingly bottomless vault of unproduced screenplays. Sure, I got paid. For that I’m always grateful. But what lingers long after the writing and the waiting and yet another crawl from the ashes of development hell is the character of a not-so-crazy trauma doc. Dr. Gun Shot’s manic dedication to the art and craft of saving lives from the never ending human hail of hot lead remains a heroic inspiration.
Truth be told, as fulfilling as getting a movie up on to the screen might be, sometime the experiences discovered in the writing of a lesser received work can return a greater personal reward.