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'Wrong Place, Wrong Time' book cover ()

Doctor Works To Get Young Men Out Of 'Wrong Place'

Feb 9, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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In the 1990s, Dr. John Rich worked at Boston City Hospital. It was a violent time in the city's history, and Rich started noticing a steady stream of young black men who turned up at the emergency room. He also started wondering why, exactly, all these young men were ending up in the hospital.

Most of them were believed to be thugs or drug dealers, Rich says. Even among doctors and nurses, the assumption was that these young black men weren't true victims; that they had done something to get themselves shot.

So Rich began taking the time to interview the knife and gunshot victims who came to the hospital. He learned that many of them weren't, in fact, responsible for their own injuries — some had been robbed, others had talked to the wrong girl at a party or been caught in the line of fire while walking home.

Rich eventually compiled the men's stories in his book, Wrong Place, Wrong Time. Among those he interviewed was Boston native Roy Martin. The two met through a mentoring program when Martin was in a prerelease program from prison.

Martin proved to be an invaluable resource for Rich, giving him insight into the lives of many of these young men.

"While I'm an African-American man, my life was different," Rich tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "My dad was a dentist, my mom was a teacher. My experience was just different from theirs. And that's why Roy was so important."

With Martin's help, Rich came to realize that many of the men who had been injured also suffered emotional wounds, similar to those of combat veterans. Symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks contributed to a feeling of jumpiness and unease — and often put these young men at risk for even more violence.

As Rich put it, "When you are hypervigilant or jumpy, or always on guard, you can go from 0 to 60 in a very short time. So a young person who is on the bus, somebody steps on his foot and suddenly somebody gets stabbed or shot."

Or as Martin put it, "Violence is evidence of a bigger problem."

That realization led Rich to try to treat the emotional wounds in addition to the physical ones. He and Martin are working with hospital programs that help young men who've been attacked understand the symptoms of trauma their experiences might bring. The program also connects the men to therapy, as well as employment and education opportunities.

"I think it's an opportunity for us to educate them about these wounds of trauma," Rich said. "And by addressing the wounds of trauma, we can make a difference."

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