HEALTH -- March 20, 2013 at 7:35 AM ET
Seven Things Teenagers Can Do To Stay Out of the Emergency Room
NEWARK, N.J. | Even as he was patting them down for jewelry and cash, Sampson Davis knew he'd had brighter ideas than this: robbing drug dealers.
It was the summer before Davis's senior year of high school and the plan to jump the Montclair drug boys seemed simple enough when he and three buddies -- Snake, Duke and Manny -- first dreamed it up in the schoolyard. They would dress in black "to blend in with the darkness." In and out. No one gets hurt.
And as Davis describes in his new book, "Living and Dying in Brick City," that's exactly how it went down ... until a four-door Chevy Citation pulled up to the scene carrying two men in jeans and polo shirts. The four boys had been about to make their getaway when the men in the car started yelling something about being lost. What happened next would trigger a series of events that led Davis to medical school and Snake to the morgue.
Davis took a few steps toward the car, just close enough to see a police radio on the floor. And it registered with him almost immediately: undercover cops. Within seconds, the group was practically surrounded by police cars.
In the days that followed, Snake, Duke and Manny were each sentenced to multiple years behind bars. But because Davis was just 17 and had a relatively clean slate, he got probation, four weeks in juvenile detention and another chance.
Today, Dr. Davis is an emergency medicine physician at St. Michael's Medical Center in Newark, just blocks from the scene of the crime.
NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez recently traveled there to discuss the new book -- which Davis describes as "part memoir, part self-help, part anecdotal" -- and to explore why growing up in America's poorest communities not only increases the chance for social missteps, but can also lead young people to poor health and drastically shorter lives.
Having lived in Newark for most of his life, Davis knows too well the social forces fueling epidemics as diverse as diabetes and domestic violence in neighborhoods like his. But for the same reason, he also knows that personal choices play into those crises. Young people, he says, need to be shown a better way.
Davis thinks of Snake to this day. About a decade after they were busted, the former friends crossed paths once again -- this time when Davis was a first-year resident and Snake was another of the gunshot wound victims who wouldn't make it out of the ER. Standing in the room where his friend ended up dying, Davis said he felt like a "survivor pulled from the wreckage over a pile of dead bodies, wondering: Why? Why me? Why had I survived?" He also thought about Snake and whether, "beneath all the bravado and rage he'd had dreams, like me, but had been too afraid to share them, or whether life had choked every bit of hope from him from the start."
Watch Davis's full discussion with Suarez in the video above. Below, read his take on seven things young people can do to stay out of the emergency room.
Seven Things Young People Can Do To Stay Out of the E.R., According to Dr. Sampson Davis
1. Learn How to Resolve Conflicts without Resorting to Guns
I see many young men and women in my E.R., on a stretcher, clinging to life after an argument gone bad. In the heat of fury, words are exchanged, tempers flare, and like wood to a fire, a simple disagreement escalates, a gun is pulled, and someone goes down. Too many young lives are lost before their time because young people, young men especially, concerned about their "rep," don't use words to deflate a potential blowup.
Of course, words can't resolve every conflict, and there are unfortunately times when nothing can deter a person bent on committing an evil act. But words like "I'm sorry," "my bad," or "my fault" still can go a long way in deflating an argument and saving a life. No need for "macho posturing" in a heated situation. Better to let go of ego, keep pride at baseline, say "my misunderstanding" and walk away with your life -- a true victory.
2. Say No to Drugs
It was almost a joke back when this phrase became popular; it made the solution to drug use seem far too easy. Well, it indeed starts there -- with a choice to say "no," and we must continue to teach this to our young people. In every community across the country, there is a spike in drug use, particularly the new drugs of choice, prescription drugs -- so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling prescription drug abuse an epidemic. Drug overdose has now surpassed automobile collisions as the leading cause of accidental death.
In 2010, two million people reported using prescription pain killers non-medically. Best way to avoid an addiction is by not starting (experimenting). Drug addiction is a horrible disease -- I've seen it up close both in the E.R. and in my own family. Once you start, your whole life falls apart, and inevitably, you wind up in the E.R. Avoid a life of agony and misery with the initial decision to say NO. And if it's already too late for that, get help. No one can battle addiction alone. There is help available. But the person with the addiction has to really want to be free from it, and they must be willing to do what it takes to get there.
3. Seek Help Early for Mental Health Issues
Mental health issues show up in different forms: depression, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive behavior, anxiety, anti-social behavior, etc. In some communities, particularly among minorities, there seems to be something taboo about even talking about mental health. That has made many who need help and sometimes their family members fearful of seeking it. Family members and friends may not understand mental illness because there aren't any physical signs. But there are signs.
Pay attention to yourself and to friends and family members if you suspect there is a problem. Many of the men behind the most recent spate of mass shootings suffer from various forms of mental illness. The problem often plays out in emergency rooms after someone suffering from depression has attempted or succeeded at suicide.
Again, I experienced it firsthand when a young man from my childhood took his own life during a solo game of Russian roulette. I'd recognized when I last saw him that he wasn't quite himself, but I knew little or nothing about depression at the time. If you aren't feeling your normal self, reach out, seek medical help. You aren't 'crazy,' but rather, you may be experiencing a real medical crisis. You may need therapy, or you may need medication. But the point is, there is help.
4. Develop/Maintain Good Eating and Exercise Habits
Since 1980, the number of overweight children in this country has tripled. One out of every three children is overweight or obese. Exercise and healthy eating habits are extremely important in combating these statistics. Obesity eventually leads to increased risks of hypertension, diabetes, stroke, heart attack and cancer. With today's generation predicted to have a shorter life span than their parents, we need to move towards a healthier America. Eating a balanced, healthy diet and exercising lead to decreased visits to the E.R. and a longer, better-quality life.
5. Report Domestic Violence and Avoid the Abuser
Rich or poor -- domestic violence doesn't discriminate. Ninety-five percent of domestic violence cases are women, but just 30 percent of them seek help for their injuries. One in five cases of domestic violence ends in death. If he hits you, get out; he more likely than not will hit you again, especially if he does not get help. I grew up in a home where domestic violence unfolded often.
My most memorable case of domestic violence was a woman I treated in the ER and tried to convince to call the authorities and report the abuse. She refused. She blamed herself and was steadfast in her decision to go back to her husband. A year or so later, I came across her again, but this time she was in cardiac arrest from the blunt trauma sustained during a beating by her husband. It broke my heart to pronounce her dead. More than three women are murdered by their significant others every day.
Do not tolerate any abuse -- physical, psychological/emotional, or sexual. A new form of abuse has surfaced with advances in technology -- cyber-space abuse, which can be just as devastating. Walk away and live another day, and report the offense. Likewise, if you or someone you know is being abused, reach out to the National Domestic Violence hotline -- 1-800-799-safe.
6. Practice Safer Sex or Abstain
I lost my own sister to HIV/AIDS. It was one of the most painful things I've experienced in life -- to watch my once beautiful, vibrant sister, whom I loved very much, succumb to this vicious disease. Young people, take control of your sexuality. There is too often among young women a false sense of security in trusting their partners. But please keep in mind, there is no way possible to look at a person and know whether he or she has a sexually transmitted disease. Abstinence is the only type of protection that is 100 percent foolproof, but if you decide to have sex, use common sense, use protection. As the saying goes, "no glove, no love, no sleeve, you must leave."
7. Surround Yourself with Positive People
Ultimately in life, you are the company you keep. Make sure to choose your friends wisely and keep company with the group that is going in a positive direction versus a negative one. Do well academically in school, earning as many A's and B's as possible. Go to college, have a vision and embark upon your journey towards greatness. If you decide to hang around the perceived 'in crowd' or people who are not interested in their futures, they will have more influence on you than you realize. Before you know it, you could see your own life and dreams spiraling out of control. That, of course, increases the likelihood that you, too, will land in the E.R. with one of the issues listed above. Follow what I call my three D's -- Stay Determined, Dedicated and Disciplined, and the rest will fall into place.
Do you have a question for Dr. Sampson Davis? Leave them in the comments section below or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. He'll answer them in a web chat on the PBS NewsHour's website next week.