April 5, 2013

Bill Nemitz: A physician tries to heal the violence

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

He's 78 now – an age when most successful surgeons are sitting back, enjoying what's left of the good life and leaving it to the younger docs to treat whatever ails the world around them.


Tune in to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 8:08 a.m. today to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

Not Bob McAfee.

"When a hollow-point bullet crashes into soft tissue, it explodes into the tiniest little sharp pieces imaginable," McAfee told a rapt audience of 150 fellow physicians, residents and medical students Thursday morning at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

He was just getting warmed up.

"And as you run your finger around (inside the wound), even though it's double-gloves in the O.R., I guarantee you will penetrate both gloves -- and end up sharing blood with a population that has a higher-than-normal incidence of blood-borne disease."

No, this hour-long lecture wasn't some dry recitation of the do's and don'ts for treating gunshot wounds. McAfee, a former president of the American Medical Association who was an attending surgeon at Maine Medical Center for 31 years, had something more far-reaching in mind.

The title of his lecture: "Families, Firearms, Films and Physicians."

The message behind it: If ever there was a public health crisis facing this community, this state and this nation, it is the culture of violence that deposits a dizzying array of patients at the doorstep of our health care system day ... after day ... after day ...

"Like any public-health problem, you identify it, you treat it," said McAfee, who hasn't stopped pushing back against societal violence since he made it his signature issue with the AMA way back in 1994. "But most importantly, you prevent it in the first place."

His targets over the 60-minute presentation were many – from a film industry that desensitizes all of us (especially young children) to violence, to a medical community that must embrace its role as a safe and trusted haven for victims of domestic abuse and other forms of violence.

(McAfee recalled routinely asking one female patient -- "a member of a very affluent part of the Greater Portland community" -- if she had experienced any violence in her life. After a long pause, she told him, "I thought I was hiding it better.")

But most of all, McAfee came to talk about guns.

"We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union, will manage to kill 31,000 people by firearms this year in this country," he said. "Nineteen thousand of them will be by suicide."

Cribbing from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution to make a political point? Who but the National Rifle Association would dare such sacrilege?

A doctor who calls the NRA "a perpetrator and ambassador of fear and intimidation and a shill for the gun manufacturers of this country" and maintains, without apology, that the Bushmaster assault rifle that was used in the massacre at Newtown "has no place in civilian society."

A doctor who now looks back on Newtown and wonders, loudly and publicly, "Will it be another Pearl Harbor and awaken us to what's going on? Or will it be just another day in America?"

A doctor who held up the latest copy of the weekly classified publication Uncle Henry's, flipped through the 13 pages containing hundreds of (no-background-check-required) firearms ads and unabashedly declared Maine "the gun-running state of the Northeast."

"We've gone to the people at Uncle Henry's," McAfee said, "and they have no intention of stopping this very lucrative part of their business."

McAfee has lived in Maine a long time -- he began his surgical residency at Maine Medical Center in 1965. A hunter himself, he owns a a single-barrel, pump-action shotgun and a .30-30, lever-action deer-hunting rifle.

(Continued on page 2)

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