Trauma Doc Stops the Bleeding

updated 03/26/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/26/2007 01:00AM

Dr. Carnell Cooper had lost count of how many times he or a colleague had patched up a gunshot victim in the trauma unit of the University of Maryland Medical Center, only to have him come back on a stretcher months later. One night, in 1994, as he worked feverishly to restart the heart of a young man cut down on Baltimore's meanest streets, "I recognized him," Cooper recalls. About six months earlier the Yale-trained surgeon had repaired his wounded abdomen. This time it was too late. "I was at his bedside, asking myself what could I have done to keep this guy from being killed?" says Cooper, 51. "A nurse said, 'There's nothing you can do. This is just the way they are.' I'm like, No. These aren't Jeffrey Dahmers. They're not beyond help."

Today Cooper has proof. In 1999 he and a colleague launched the Violence Intervention Program (VIP), the nation's most comprehensive hospital-based effort to get troubled patients off the streets, ending a cycle that sends so many of them to operating rooms—and morgues. So far, more than 325 people have volunteered for the grant-funded program, involving social workers, case managers, substance abuse counselors, parole and probation officers. It will take years to gauge long-term success. But a study published last year in a medical journal showed VIP's first 56 participants were significantly less likely than other patients with similar backgrounds to return to the hospital with a violent injury. By catching people just after they've been gravely wounded, "you get them when they're most vulnerable, the first time they may be rethinking what they do," Cooper says.

That's just how it happened with Eric Ferguson. In April 1999 rival drug dealers stabbed him 17 times with an ice pick, shot him twice, beat him with a baseball bat and left him for dead in the street. Rushed to Cooper's trauma center—his third appearance—"I flatlined twice," Ferguson, 40, recalls. A cocaine and heroin addict, he was facing 60 years in prison on drug charges and had served three years for attempted murder. "I had no conscience," he admits. But when VIP administrator Dawn Eslinger came to Ferguson's bedside, he decided he'd had it with gangster life. After he completed rehab, Ferguson met with Cooper weekly for five months and, helped by the surgeon's letters to judges asking for leniency, wound up with probation—and one last chance.

"I had Dr. Cooper's personal number, pager and cell number," Ferguson recalls. "Once, I wanted to give up and go back to selling drugs. I'd got into a depression. But Dr. Cooper kept saying, 'You can do it.'" Drug free for seven years, Ferguson is working as house manager of a drug rehab facility, "happily married and in the process of purchasing our first home. I did a 180."

Turnarounds like that take time—and Cooper puts in a lot. On top of his 60-hour work weeks, he personally mentors two program clients, shows up at court hearings and visits people in jail. His secret: "I function very well on five hours sleep." And sometimes less, now that he and wife Danielle, 33, are busy raising twins Elise and Elena, born in February, along with their 19-month-old daughter Ella. "I always joke that I'm a single married mom," Danielle says of Cooper's 24-7 commitment. "But it's important for him to make it home to give Ella her bath and read to her." But not spoil her. "He doesn't believe in buying lots of things. When I was getting Ella shoes, he noted when he was a kid they cut holes in the toes when they grew out of them."

Indeed, Cooper not only grew up poor, he easily could have wound up someone else's trauma case. He was born to unwed teens in a Dillon, S.C., neighborhood where violent crime was commonplace. "A lot of guys my age are dead or in jail," he says. "One relative did 10 years for manslaughter; another got killed in a bar." What saved him were a strict grandmother and great-grandparents. They raised a straight-A student who spent summers picking cotton and tobacco to help pay the bills. The turning point in Cooper's life came thanks to a program that places gifted minorities in the nation's top high schools. Cooper enrolled at Andover High in Massachusetts, and it opened a new world. "I swore I'd never work in a tobacco field again," he says, "and I never have."

Instead, he went on to Yale and trauma surgery, fueled by the rush of pulling lives back from the edge of oblivion. "It's wonderful to walk out to a family and say, 'We got him through,'" Cooper says. Through—and beyond, to a life with a real future. Quinn Burks knows about that. He joined Cooper's program a couple of years ago; at 22, he was turning his life around after being shot in the back while on probation for drug possession. With Cooper's help, Burks transferred from community college to the University of Maryland, conquered fears about organic chemistry and is aiming for medical school. "He's a constant motivator," Burks says. "He wants you to dream big—and follow through."

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