A resounding pop! echoed through West Englewood on a Saturday afternoon. A teenage girl crumpled to the ground with a wail. About 30 people, from the elderly to those in their teens, rushed to her side.
A woman in the crowd stepped forward.
“The shooter’s gone,” she said, kneeling by the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Dream,” the girl replied.
“OK, my name is Day,” the woman said. “I’m trained in gunshot first aid. Do I have your permission to help?” Dream squeezed out a “yes” through clenched teeth.
“I’m going to use my jacket and put a little bit of pressure on,” Day told her. “I’m going to check to see if there’s an exit wound.” Day patted Dream’s leg gently and looked it over carefully, then pressed the bunched-up cloth of the inside of her jacket to the girl’s right thigh.
“Do I have your permission to call 911?” she asked next.
“Yes, yes!” Dream responded with an impatient groan. “I just got shot!”
“Good afternoon—fire,” Day said confidently to the dispatcher to indicate she needed an ambulance from the fire department.
“How old are you?” she asked Dream.
“I’ve got a 14-year-old girl here with a gunshot wound in her upper right thigh,” Day quickly relayed to the dispatcher. “We’re on the corner of 63rd and Ashland. Please hurry.”
Dream had begun to wiggle and attempted to get up.
“Lie down—I know it hurts, but you’re gonna be OK, I promise you,” Day told her gently. “I’m here to help. We got you.”
With that, Day called “scene,” and the people gathered around applauded the actors.
More than a dozen shootings have rocked West Englewood since the beginning of the year, but this wasn’t one of them. This was part of an emergency first aid training hosted by Ujimaa Medics at the neighborhood branch of the Chicago Public Library. The group, consisting of volunteer medical professionals and community members, has been organizing such free and low-cost workshops since 2014, to teach people in neighborhoods plagued by gun violence how to administer first aid to victims while waiting for professional emergency medical assistance to arrive.
Attendees learn how to help in those first few minutes after a shooting that are critical to ensuring a victim’s survival. They’re taught to stem bleeding from gunshot wounds; treat sucking chest wounds; and provide psychological comfort to someone who’s been injured. They also learn how to use available resources in a pinch—plastic bags to cover their hands if gloves aren’t available, maxi pads to absorb blood from wounds.
The first, most obvious goal is to save people from dying. The Chicago Fire Department has had a history of slow ambulance response times in the south- and west-side neighborhoods that see the bulk of the city’s gun violence. And the police, though they’re often the first to arrive on the scene of a shooting, aren’t trained or obligated to give first aid trauma care. The University of Chicago Medical Center’s new Level 1 trauma center is as yet unopened. So arming bystanders with basic medical skills may prove life-saving.
But the larger goal of Ujimaa Medics—or UMedics—is political. “Ujimaa” is Swahili for “collective work and responsibility,” and the group is dedicated to reducing health disparities for African-Americans through education and self-reliance.
“We really believe in self-determined help in the black community,” says Martine Caverl, a registered nurse who cofounded the collective in 2014. “We would like to see a situation in which . . . people feel like they have a system in place that meets their need for safety, for living a fulfilled life, and for access to care that’s preventative and emergency based.”
Although some of the group’s trainers are doctors, EMTs, and nurses, most of UMedics’ trainers have no professional medical background—some are teens or even children. This isn’t an accident: Caverl argues that African-Americans need to see medical know-how delivered by people like themselves.
The goal, she says, is “to create a situation in which people are feeling empowered.”
Caverl and UMedics cofounder Amika Tendaji see their work as part of a long tradition of grassroots health care organizing and education in Chicago. In the 1970s the Black Panthers established free clinics across the country, including in North Lawndale, where they offered health care services ranging from gynecological exams to sickle-cell anemia screenings and immunizations. Then as now, African-Americans were disproportionately at risk for asthma, lead poisoning, diabetes, heart disease, and physical and psychological trauma.
Last year UMedics trained more than 200 people in emergency trauma care for gunshot wounds and first aid for asthma attacks. They know of at least six people so far who have used their training in real-world situations.
Tendaji’s son, 16-year-old Joe, who is one of the collective’s youngest trainers, once helped a peer in the midst of an asthma emergency. He says he also feels ready to aid someone with a gunshot wound if the situation arises.
“The hood, where gunshots happen, is so distant from where hospitals are,” he says. “We see these things almost every day, so you gotta have that skill.”
More than half of the attendees at Saturday’s workshop said they’d either known someone who had been shot, seen someone shot, or been shot at themselves.
Tendaji, who isn’t a medical professional, put her “street medic” training to use after a shooting situation in August 2015.
She happened to be in a corner liquor store with another person who had been trained by UMedics when the man stumbled in.
“He was shot in both arms, both legs, and actually his ankle was completely shattered,” she told the group. They took off their shirts and pressed them onto the man’s wounds in order to stem the bleeding. Tendaji estimates that she and her friend cared for the man for at least ten minutes before first responders arrived. He survived his injuries.
That success taught Tendaji a lesson, however. One of the most stressful aspects of the experience, she says, was dealing with concerned onlookers who attempted to interfere while Tendaji gave the man first aid. After that experience, she realized that the UMedics training needed to include instructions on dealing with bystanders.
On Saturday, the trainers explained how to establish an authoritative presence and redirect the energy of what they described as typical shooting-scene “characters”—”the protector,” who means well but interferes with the medic’s attempts to administer aid; “the photographer,” who may be trying to take pictures or videos of the scene, spreading panic and distressing the victim; and “the vengeful guy,” who may know the victim, be riled up, and calling for immediate retaliation against the perpetrator. By the same logic, they also offer pointers on how to interact with paramedics and police, who may be skeptical of or interfere with street medics.
When it comes to the cops “you want to appeal to their humanity” to be allowed to continue administering aid, trainer LaCreshia Birts explained to the group. “You want to say, ‘Hey, look, if this was you, how would you feel if somebody was trying to save your life and the police took them away? Just please let me help.'”
In addition to public trainings, UMedics also conducts free and sliding-scale private trainings for outside groups, especially those located in black communities directly impacted by gun violence.
“Our long-term vision is autonomy over the bodies in our own communities,” Tendaji says. “If our vision for liberation doesn’t include that, if we don’t know what to do in the middle of a crisis, we don’t feel very free.”