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“Goods for Guns” Born out of Worcester Doctor’s Tragedy

Friday, November 30, 2012

 

Dr. Michael Hirsh

Dr. Michael Hirsh, Worcester's acting Commissioner of Public Health, lost one of his closest friends and colleagues to a shooting over 30 years ago. Instead of directing his grief at the individual responsible, the pediatric surgeon used this life altering event as inspiration for the highly successful "Good for Guns" buyback program.

John Chase Wood II, a board-eligible pediatrician pursuing his goal of becoming a pediatric surgeon, was shot outside of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York on the night of November 2, 1981. Wood was gunned down right in front of the Washington Heights area hospital by a 15-year old boy with a small handgun.

"John was a very special and unique physician," Dr. Hirsh said. "He was a Julliard-trained French horn player, and was so wise and knowledgable despite being a young doctor… The whole neighborhood knew him, and he became a larger-than-life figure around the hospital. I remember when we found out that he had been killed by a boy from the neighborhood, I thought it was ironic since he seemed to be the last person that could happen to."

After the shooting of one of the most popular doctors at Columbia, there was an understandable outcry from the staff for more protection. They began  searching every patient that came into the emergency room for weapons, and found everything from brass knuckles to Uzis.

"I took those weapons to our Board of Trustees and said, 'This is what your staff is dealing with everyday,'" Dr. Hirsh added. "Then I think they began to take things more seriously."

The staff blamed the neighborhood for the shooting and continued threat of violence. But then, the chairman of the Department of Surgery, Dr. Keith Reemtsma, met with Dr. Hirsh and told him to contain the staff's anger.

"He invited in Sarah Brady from the Center for Handgun Control to speak with the staff and I," Dr. Hirsh said. "She spoke about dealing with gun violence the same way Walter Reed dealt with yellow fever in the Panama Canal zone. He didn't have the ability to fight the disease directly with medicine, but when he realized it came from mosquitos, he could eliminate sitting water and put up nets. So, she said, we could stop gun violence by reducing the availability of handguns. That message really stuck with me."

He took that message to UMass Memorial in the late 1980's, but didn't found "Goods for Guns" until he was working at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh in 1992. At the time, the North Side of Pittsburgh was enduring a gang war over crack cocaine, making gun shot victims a common sight in the hospital's emergency room.

"We worked with the Pittsburgh Police Department and some department stores to begin offering gift certificates for those who turned in their handguns," Dr. Hirsh said. "We thought it was a better program than offering cash, and we could do it around the holidays when everybody was looking to go out and shop anyways."

The "Goods for Guns" program in Pittsburgh has collected over 11,000 guns since its inception, and when Dr. Hirsh moved back to UMass Memorial in 2001, he brought the idea for the program with him.

11 buyback drives and 2,200 collected guns later, the "Goods for Guns" program in Worcester is still teaming up with the Worcester Police Department and the Worcester Division of Public Health to get weapons off the streets.

"If you look at Worcester, it is statistically the best city in New England in terms of fewest crimes and deaths involving guns," Dr. Hirsh said. "I'm not saying it's causal, but I think it's a part of an overall community awareness and attitude that this is not going to be tolerated."

Making this year's event even more special is the presence of John C. Wood III and John C. Wood IV, the son and grandson of the doctor that inspired this program.

"John III is a nursing student, and he was at Columbia attending a rugby game in honor of his dad," Dr. Hirsh said. "While he was there he heard that there was an event honoring his dad in Massachusetts… He ended up getting in touch with me and asking if he could attend. Are you kidding me? Of course he could."

"John (II) was the inspiration of starting this process for me, and I'm just so honored to have them here."

Any residents wishing to participate in this year's buyback drive can bring their guns, unloaded and wrapped in a bag, to the Worcester Police Department on December 1st or the Worcester Division of Public Health on December 8th. The events will run from 9 am to 3 pm on both days.

Those trading in their guns will receive Wegmans gift certificates.

 

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