Picks and Pans Review: The Knife and Gun Club

updated 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Eugene Richards

Anyone who has ever spent any time in the emergency room of an urban hospital has seen at least traces of the furious life-and-death universe that exists there. It is an environment where men and women reveal themselves across the spectrum of human nature—from selfish and vicious to noble and courageous. There may be more emotion per square foot in such a place than anywhere else, and this extraordinary book captures that intensity. Richards, a free-lance photographer-writer, produced the book after spending about seven weeks in Denver General Hospital's emergency room and ambulances. The 105 photographs he includes and the accompanying text (mostly interviews with hospital personnel and transcripts of dialogue or radio communications) generate a palpable sense of place.

This is no book for the squeamish. At one point, two paramedics on a call chat about a man who tried to get high by injecting himself with glass cleaner; one paramedic says, "I had a girl last week who shot up Drano. Somebody probably told her it was crystal meth or something. She got just about a quarter of a cc into her, but I mean it just ate a—I mean, by the time she got to the hospital we sat there and watched her skin bubble."

A doctor talks about a patient who has just died of a heart attack in the ER: "We put a tube into his chest to try to reexpand it. And he was essentially dead at that point. We were just going through the motions for us to practice and get better with our hands. And then, once we were done, we said, 'Okay, he's dead.' And we left him in the room. And soon they'll clean him up and the coroner will take him. And then housekeeping will be the last to come in and sweep up the mess."

The title comes from the neighborhood residents' name for the hospital's ER, where stabbing and shooting victims are routine patients. It's astonishing that anyone ever works there for more than a day, and Richards deftly shows that Denver General's ER staff is aware of its own martyrdom. One self-protective device is humor. A staff member muses, "Gonorrhea, strange names for strange things. When I was working in Chicago, a woman gave birth to twins when she expected one child, to be named Regina. So she named the second girl Vagina. Honestly. Deladumone, you know the drug used to dry out breasts after birth. Another woman named her daughter Deladumone."

Richards sees the heroism in ER people, and sees the pride in such comments as this from a doctor whose wife won't let him wear his work shoes at home: "She just freaks out. 'You're not going to let my kids go near them. I see the cooties jumping off of them.' And some of the other doctors and I joke about our shoes because they really are grubby. They've got blood on them and all this other stuff. And we joke that when we leave this place, we're going to leave our shoes behind, as mementos of the things we've been stepping in and the stuff that's dripped on us." (Atlantic Monthly, $35)

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