Doctor Works To Get Young Men Out Of 'Wrong Place' When young African-American men showed up at Boston City Hospital with knife and gunshot wounds, most were thought to be thugs or drug dealers. But Dr. John Rich took time to interview these victims and found out what was really behind their injuries.
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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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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.

JOHN RICH: 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.

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.

RICH: 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.

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?

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 don't 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?

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.

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.

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?

RICH: 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.

MARTIN: 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.

RICH: 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.

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.

RICH: Thank you very much.

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