5 Questions: Edward Cornwell on youth violence

- By Tracie White

Edward Cornwell

Edward Cornwell

Edward Cornwell, MD, had to call back for this interview. He was busy in the operating room of Johns Hopkins Hospital where he had been talking to the family of one of his patients, a 30-year-old man shot in the abdomen. As chief of the hospital's trauma center, which sees 300 gunshot victims a year, Cornwell has spent years treating the gunshot injuries of an endless stream of young men. He wants it to stop. He fights youth violence on two fronts, in the operating room and through community activism. Now he's taking his message to the media.

In 2000, ABC News cameras followed Cornwell for a six-part documentary titled 'Hopkins 24/7' responding to gunshot victims and also showing a group of teens the effects of bullets on actual people. Politicians and journalists began calling. He has appeared in People magazine and on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show.' On May 23, he'll bring his message to Stanford where he'll show early portions of a video he hopes will accurately depict the consequences of violence.The School of Medicine's Office of Diversity and leadership is one of four campus sponsors of the events. He spoke by phone to Medical Center Report writer Tracie White.

1. As a trauma surgeon, describe your unique qualifications for preaching an anti-violence message. Why should we listen to you?

Cornwell: Red hands, bloody hands. I've been there. My entire career has been spent treating young males, predominantly minority, some dead on arrival, some facing long rehab. There's nothing glamorous about getting shot. There's nothing glamorous about a heartbroken mother in the ER.

2. What do you see as the root cause of violence in our society and what problems are we facing in the future?

Cornwell: Long before Virginia Tech, long before Columbine, we've been a country that glamorizes violence. We live in a culture of violence. Kids from all ages and all backgrounds are inundated with images of violence that glorify it. The new public health problem is kids thinking violence is cool. The upcoming generation will be more exposed to direct violence and violence in the media, with easier access to guns, and with fewer non-violent role models than any other generation in history. Arguments that used to be played out in after-school fistfights are now resulting in kids dying.

3. When did you decide to take your message to the media instead of just continuing the battle as a scientist, surgeon and community activist?

Cornwell: It was a trip three years ago to New York. I got a call from executives at the music-video network to preview an anti-violence video featuring the rap star 50 Cent. At the time I didn't know who 50 Cent was. I tell you, the video depicted the same garbage we had been working against. I told them I was offended by this - as a black male, as a father and as a trauma surgeon. So I determined that day, I was going to use a more graphic approach to fight this. The overall impact I'd had on society up until then was minimal. The scientific approach was too slow. We'd reach 90 kids while MTV reached 90 million kids. We were like the little mom-and-pop shop selling burgers next door to McDonald's.

4. How did you come up with the idea to make your own video with an anti-violence message?

Cornwell: I told the music executives that day in New York that they should take images from their video and intersperse them with real-life scenes from 'Hopkins 24/7.' That might show viewers just how wide a gulf separates rap videos from the real world of blood-soaked gurneys and heartbroken mothers in trauma centers. They, of course, didn't listen to me. So basically we're doing what I had suggested to those music executives.

5. How is production of your video 'Hype Vs. Reality' going?

Cornwell: I'd be working on it more if I had the money. We know exactly what we want. We've got an award-winning director, and we'll be featuring mothers of former patients.

This is nonprofit. I'm not trying to sell any videos. I'm not looking for any votes. I am fundraising right now. It's a new role for me. It's going to cost $200,000 to create and disseminate the public service announcement video. When people ask what they can do, I tell them they can send money to: The James Earl Hart Foundation, 5 Shawan Road, Suite 2, Hunt Valley, MD 21030.

Cornwell will make two campus appearances on May 23. At noon in the Hartley Conference Center in the Mitchell Earth Sciences Building, he'll give a talk on 'Youth violence, race and popular culture.' At 5:15 p.m. he'll discuss 'A trauma surgeon's perspective on youth violence' in the Beckman Center's Munzer Auditorium. Both talks are open to the public, but seating is limited so an RSVP is needed. To request seating for the noon session, e-mail cnqueen@stanford.edu; for the later session, e-mail lydiae@stanford.edu.

About Stanford Medicine

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