Iowa City emergency rooms prepare to treat high levels of gun violence victims

As increases in gun related deaths are seen across the state, staff from the UI Hospitals and Clinics and Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids emphasize a high level of preparedness and explain the methods used to treat gunshot wounds.


Emily Nyberg

Bullet shells are seen on the ground at the Hawkeye Wildlife Shooting Range in Amana, Iowa on March 20, 2023.

Sofia Mamakos, News Reporter

Medical directors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids are preparing for high levels of gun violence victims as the rate of gun deaths and injuries rise in Iowa.

According to data from EveryStat, the number of gun deaths increased 59 percent from 2012 to 2021 in Iowa, compared to a 39 percent increase nationwide. In an average year for the state, 302 people die and 511 are injured by guns.

UIHC Director of Safety and Security Douglas Vance said UIHC has seen an uptick in shootings in Johnson County.

The Daily Iowan reported in December 2022 that Johnson County recorded a rise in gun crime and felony gun violations.

“We have seen an increased number of shootings in the Johnson County area, but I would say the vast majority of our patients are not from here,” Vance said.

RELATED: Opinion | UI needs more focus placed on gun violence prevention

UIHC is a level-one trauma center, meaning that it can provide care for every aspect of injury from prevention to rehabilitation. This also makes UIHC a referral resource for communities in nearby regions.

Alison Harmon, UIHC director of emergency medical transport services, said the emergency room treated 66 gunshot wounds in 2022.

The hospital receives gun violence victims from all across the state — something UIHC prepares for, Harmon said.

“They’re transferred here for our higher level of care,” she said. “This is what we do in emergency medicine. We have a strong partnership with our trauma colleagues, and so this [taking on multiple gunshot victims] is something that we train, and we review on a frequent basis.”

Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids also has a systematic approach to treating gunshot victims, Matthew Aucutt, Mercy Cedar Rapids emergency department medical director, said.

“You do a primary survey where you’re assessing airway, breathing, circulation, and then disability,” Aucutt said. “Then, we do a secondary survey where we then kind of go over the whole body, from head to toe, a little bit more detailed exam, but first you want to quickly identify something that could be life-threatening that you need to correct right away.”

The most life-threatening injuries would be those that target the head and chest, Aucutt said.

“If it hits a bone, it’s not as bad as if it hits your aorta or a large vessel where you could bleed to death,” he said. “The larger caliber bullet, the more lethal it is.”

RELATED: UIHC reports increased number of aggravated assaults in 2021

Darren Pemberton, UIHC director of emergency preparedness and business continuity, said if the emergency room ever hits capacity, there are procedures to activate the hospital incident command system.

“With that, a team of people will start to then help front load things for the ER and help make sure all the supplies and equipment are there when they’re needed,” Pemberton said. “It’s really quite the ballet to see all the specialties come together and just put things in action.”

Vance said there is a collaborative effort from all teams across UIHC that the hospital uses to treat gunshot patients.

“It really takes all of us to work together to make this happen,” he said. “So sometimes it may look seamless from the outside, and we try very hard to make it look seamless, but it’s a lot of collaboration across our enterprise.”