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Doctor Works To Get Young Men Out Of 'Wrong Place'

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Doctor Works To Get Young Men Out Of 'Wrong Place'


Doctor Works To Get Young Men Out Of 'Wrong Place'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Dr. John Rich used to work at Boston City Hospital. It was around 1990, a time of high crime. And he started noticing this steady of stream of young, black men who turned up at the emergency room.

Dr. JOHN RICH (Author, "Wrong Place, Wrong Time"): As a black doctor there, one of a few black doctors, I walked through the hospital and I would see lots of young men on gurneys who had been shot or stabbed.

INSKEEP: And John Rich began wondering why so many of them ended up there.

Dr. RICH: By doctors and nurses they were judged to be thugs or drug dealers, and somehow it didn't - we never really got their story.

INSKEEP: He began interviewing knife and gunshot victims, and he tells their stories in a book called "Wrong Place, Wrong Time." John Rich questioned the notion that young black men in poor neighborhoods always did something to get themselves shot.

Dr. RICH: That's right. That's the common assumption. You know, here comes another one of those young drug dealers. He must have been standing on the corner selling drugs and he got shot. And I have to be honest - early on that was kind of my take on it too. But when I really began to sit down and talk to them and hear their stories, I realized that some of them got robbed walking down the street. Another young person might have been walking home from a party and found himself in the line of fire.

One young man named David was sitting in a car with his cousin, who was also his best friend. Someone walked up to their car, fired guns at the car. David was wounded and his cousin, who was his best friend, was killed. David had been in jail in the past, was struggling to get a job, but had gotten a job, but if you walked up to David, you wouldn't be able to tell that he had a job, you wouldn't be able to tell he had, you know, a cousin who was really somebody he loved.

But sitting down and talking to David, I began to see just how numb the experience of losing his cousin had made him. He told me he was unable to feel love anymore, but more ominously, he was completely unable to feel fear.

INSKEEP: You're basically telling me that this young man's experience with violence probably increased the chances that he would experience more violence.

Dr. RICH: Exactly, but not through the ways that most people assumed. Here, it's really the symptoms of trauma that were putting David at risk for more violence. So just like a combat veteran, these young people suffered emotional wounds - nightmares, flashbacks. This constant feeling of jumpiness made these young people feel very unsafe, even if they had had no involvement with anything criminal at all.

INSKEEP: Did you struggle to relate to some of the young men you were talking with?

Dr. RICH: In part, yes, because while I'm an African-American man, my life was different. I grew up in Queens, New York. My dad was a dentist, my mom was a teacher. My experience was just different from theirs. And that's why Roy was so important and has been so important still in my life.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned Roy, because you're talking about Roy Martin, who is in the studio with you and who became something of a - well, I dont know how you'd describe it - a sort of interpreter of somebody else's world. Is that right, Mr. Martin? Is that what you were?

Mr. ROY MARTIN: I guess so. I guess that's what it ended up being, and I'm thankful for that.

INSKEEP: Dr. John Rich says he needed a translator not for a difference of race but for a difference of experience. Roy Martin came from a poor neighborhood and had been to prison for a shooting. He met Dr. Rich in a mentoring program and they began to learn from each other. One day they went to a diner - and let's hear how each man responded when they saw the cook preparing their food with a dirty spatula.

Mr. MARTIN: You know, so, my recommendation was, like, we should check this dude, like, and check him meaning like we should aggressively correct him.

INSKEEP: That was Roy Martin's response. Here's how Dr. John Rich remembers the same moment.

Dr. RICH: Roy turned to me and said, why didn't you cuss him out? And I was maybe at that moment being more timid than I should have been. On the other hand, Roy's reaction was, you need to be really aggressive. And it's funny because I thought that was par for the course. I thought that's how respect was gained. Like, I actually was taught to react like that.

INSKEEP: Well, Dr. Rich, you also write about eye contact, making eye contact. What did you learn from Roy?

Dr. RICH: Well, in that same day, actually, a group of young men walked past us and Roy locked his eyes on them and watched them go past, and they did the same to him. And I said, what was that about? And Roy explained to me, you know, I have an eye problem - that is, when people look at me, I look right back at them and hold it to let them know that I'm not the one you mess with.

And I heard that from other young people. When you're in a situation where you feel threatened or might be threatened, it's always on you to show the other person that you're not going to take any mess. And when you're hyper-vigilant or jumpy or always on guard, you can go from, like, zero to 60 in a very short time. So a young person who's on the bus, somebody steps on his foot and suddenly, you know, somebody gets stabbed or shot.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you want to treat a gunshot wound in a young person almost as a symptom of a medical condition that you want to go go treat.

Mr. MARTIN: I think that's kind of it. I think - and it's funny, I say that a lot as well - like, violence is evidence of a bigger problem. Violence is not the problem. Violence is evidence of the problem. Like, that's one of the biggest things that I worked on with Dr. Rich. Like, help enrich my life so I'm not really worried about destroying somebody else's.

And once I got a life to worry about, which for me came in a form of my children, you know, me caring about them and loving them or having fear for their life, for their existence, kind of surpassed any angle or hatred I have for anybody else. And I think that's what happens with normal, healthy people. You're so engulfed in the pursuit of your own life or the safety of your own children, you don't have time to pull over in traffic and beat this guy up that gave you the finger.

INSKEEP: You know, one other thing does occur to me, Dr. John Rich. As you've been talking with your friends and colleagues about your concern with basically untreated trauma cases, with people having the aftermath of violence that may lead to more violence, have you had some people who've responded by saying, come on, what are you talking about - if kids want to stay out of trouble, they should stay out of trouble and maybe not stare at people on the street.

Dr. RICH: I hear that all the time. The problem is that if a young person comes into the emergency department with a violent injury, in most of those settings, nothing is done to attend to the emotional wounds of these young people. We have tried - and we're beginning this work in Philadelphia, Roy's involved with some work here in Boston - where hospitals are taking the lead to connect with these young victims when they're in the emergency department to make sure that they understand that they might have some of these symptoms when they leave and to provide therapy and help these young people get connected to, you know, employment, education, so we have an opportunity.

And when people say to me, isn't it just a case of bad kids acting badly, I think it's an opportunity for us to educate them about these wounds of trauma and that by addressing the wounds of trauma, we can make a difference.

INSKEEP: John Rich is author of "Wrong Place, Wrong Time." Thanks very much.

Dr. RICH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And he was with Roy Martin, one of the people he interviewed for the book. Mr. Martin, thank you as well.

Dr. RICH: Thank you very much.

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