Doctor, instant celebrity, wants more than just gun laws


For too many years, Janis Orlowski has seen the victims wheeled into her hospitals. First in Chicago and now in Washington. Young men killed or wounded in gun violence.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked into the emergency roo m and seen principally a dead young man lying on the cart,” said the senior administrator at the District of Columbia’s largest trauma clinic.

“We are violent, we are aggressive, and we kill our own. That’s what I see,” she said.

On Monday, it was too much. Especially after other recent mass shootings — Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook — she couldn’t remain silent.

Orlowski, 57, spoke up at the end of a news conference where she was briefing the media on treatment of people wounded in the Navy Yard shooting, which left 13 dead, including the gunman. In unplanned comments that instantly made her an Internet and television celebrity, she used plain, direct language typical of her rural Wisconsin upbringing.

The “senseless trauma” is “something evil in our society,” Orlowski said. She urged the public: “Put my trauma center out of business. . . . I would like to not be an expert on gunshots.”

Orlowski’s dramatic plea drew praise especially from supporters of gun control. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a one-dimensional anti-gun advocate.

Yes, the doctor would support stricter gun laws. But she stressed that legislation is not “the sole answer.”

Instead, as she explained in a one-hour interview Tuesday, the remedy must be broader.

“I don’t believe that if you have gun control, then the world is good. I believe it’s a combination of how we view guns, how they’re available in our society, what we do with mental health, what we do with those people who find themselves on the fringes of society,” Orlowski said.

To rely only on the government, she said, “is in some ways a cop out.”

Orlowski said it was critical for society as a whole to identify and treat people suffering from aggression, post-traumatic stress or other mental-health problems.

She felt moved to speak Monday partly because she remembered a conversation with a friend, also a doctor, who helped treat victims of the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson. The 22-year-old gunman, who severely wounded former representative Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“The doctor I spoke with basically said, ‘Janis, if we had mental health available to our citizens, we wouldn’t need this trauma center,’” Orlowski said.

Purely by coincidence, Orlowski’s news conference came a few hours after she gave notice that she will resign from her positions as chief medical officer and chief operating officer at Medstar Washington Hospital Center.

I think Orlowski’s original comments had such impact because she appreciates both the depth and complexity of the problem.

Her nuanced views spring partly from her experience as one of eight children in Mount Pleasant, Wis. Her father hunted, and everybody in the community was familiar with firearms and the proper way to handle them.

“Gun safety was something that was taught,” she said. Bad behavior with guns “wasn’t just forbidden by your parents, but it was forbidden by society,” she said.

Orlowski got her first extended experience with the human cost of gun violence while working for 22 years at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She has seen more of it since she moved to the District in 2004.

For someone with such a high-powered job — she oversees a staff of 6,000 — she comes across as friendly and unpretentious.

Orlowski lives in Georgetown with her husband, an electrical engineer, who was her “college sweetheart” at Marquette University. They have a 25-year-old son. For relaxation, she reads, knits and is a “rabid” fan of the Green Bay Packers.

She said she “loves, loves” her current job but is leaving for a position at a nonprofit organization (not yet announced), also in Washington. That will allow her to work on health policy issues that interest her and maybe reduce her current workload of 80 to 100 hours a week.

Although she hadn’t planned to say the words that made her famous, Orlowski was glad she did. She thinks it’s important to treat gun violence as a public health issue, as well as a socio-economic one.

“If the chief medical officer of the largest trauma and burn unit of Washington, D.C., doesn’t say something about this societal ill, who does?” Orlowski said. “I probably should have done more of this. I chide myself for not doing more.”

She’s done plenty. Orlowski has set an example for passionate, thoughtful advocacy that other leaders in medicine and elsewhere should emulate.

© 2013, The Washington Post

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Why the Islamic State (or ISIS, or QSIS, or ISIL) has so many names

    The Guardian reports that an influential Egyptian group has requested that Western observers make a crucial nomenclature change. Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, which the Guardian describes as “a wing of the Egyptian justice ministry … [and] a source of religious authority both inside and outside Egypt,” says that it’s not appropriate to refer to the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” that’s currently fighting in Iraq and Syria. Instead, according to Dar al-Ifta, we should call them “al-Qaida Separatists in Iraq and Syria,” or alternately QSIS. You can learn more by following the group’s “Call it QS not IS” social-media campaign.

  • Why do some hostages die and others are released?

    This last week’s deeply contrasting stories of two New Englanders caught in the Middle East’s maelstrom of violence — the savage murder of James Foley and the joyous release from captivity of Peter Theo Curtis — point to a central question: Why do some hostages die while others are released?

  • Rick Perry’s comeback headed off at the pass

    It was all going so well for Texas Gov. Rick Perry — until the indictment. His efforts to move past a disastrous 2012 presidential run that had become a reliable punch line for a senior moment seemed to be working.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category