PHILADELPHIA – It was the fourth time Mike Abdullah was attending the class in basic combat medicine for civilians, and he still shook his head ruefully at the scenes playing out before him.
An 11-year-old boy lay on the ground and tried his best to be limp, dead weight, while a former Navy medic taught those around him the best way to carry him to safety. A female nurse in scrubs showed a group of adults and children how to locate the brachial artery and stop massive bleeding with the pressure of a single thumb. One of her male counterparts watched some of his young trainees wince as he taught them to apply and tighten tourniquets.
Abdullah, 61, and a community organizer – who lost a brother and four nephews to gun violence – recognized the importance of these lessons, especially for the younger crowd. He just wished they never had to be taught.
“I’m ashamed. I want them to be kids,” Abdullah said. “A child wants to be a child, and their biggest problem should be going to school and making A’s and learning.
“But we have to teach them to stay alive.”
The class was part of a Temple University program called Fighting Chance, which takes a practical – if startling- approach to helping save lives in crime-addled areas by training residents how to triage the victims of shootings and other violent crimes before an ambulance arrives. Before Fighting Chance even launched, the Obama administration announced a similar effort, Stop the Bleed, in the fall.
Scott Charles, Temple’s trauma outreach coordinator who helped develop the class, said that he believes people intuitively want to help others. He pointed to the many bystanders who rushed to aid the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the lives saved during the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, where strangers made tourniquets out of T-shirts.
“In Philly, we haven’t had a terrorist incident, but we do have people getting shot every day,” Charles said.
While overall cases of violent crime are decreasing in recent decades across the country, Philadelphia is one of 26 large U.S. cities – Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, among others – that have reported an increase in homicides this year. Reports show that through June, there were already 122 murders, up from 115 in 2015.
Charles said that at training sessions, “When we ask people if they know someone who’s been shot or they’ve seen someone who’s been shot, most of them say yes.”
Charles says the classes were prompted by a resident who said he was tired of seeing shooting victims lying bloody in the streets while bystanders either ran away or stood by, sometimes filming it on their cellphones but otherwise not doing anything to help.
That resident, 66-year-old Wayne Jacobs, said that the problem was that “people just don’t know what to do, but if you give them the knowledge and teach them, you empower them.”
Fighting Chance, he says, does that. “It makes people feel like they’re firemen, gives them that mentality that they can help if they run into the fire,” he said.
About 250 people have received the training so far. Some say they’ve already used what they learned. Louise “Miss Midge” Smith took part in a class one night and came to the aid of a man passed out on the street the next day. She put the man into the “recovery position,” on his side so he would not choke. Then she and others picked him up and carried him to a car, buckling him in before taking him to the hospital.
“The training just kicked in. It did,” said Smith, 67, who said the man may have been intoxicated.
Some just wish they had received the training earlier.
Last year, Abdullah said he and a friend were on the scene when a young woman was shot. She later died at the hospital.
“Nobody knew what to do. She started convulsing, and everybody said, ‘Don’t touch her,’ ” he said. “All we had to do was turn her on her side and use a tourniquet.”
The simple techniques the program teach can make a huge difference, according to Tim Bryan, assistant director of emergency medical services at Temple, who took the lead in developing the class with Charles. Bryan served as a combat medic in the U.S. Navy.
“Even if you’re shot in the leg and chest and they only deal with the leg in field, that’s one less pint of blood lost and that’s one more pint in reserve and that buys the trauma surgeon five more minutes,” he said.
Bryan usually takes the lead during the training sessions. He served in the Middle East and has seen firsthand how many more soldiers are surviving serious injury than ever before. In part that’s because every person who goes into harm’s way has been trained in basic first aid, he said, and why Fighting Chance is based on the U.S. military’s Tactical Combat Casualty Care course.
On a recent, muggy evening where the temperature topped 80 degrees, about 60 children, teenagers and adults sat on benches in the un-air-conditioned Hunting Park Recreation Center in North Philadelphia.
As many fanned themselves, Bryan began with the standard disclaimer: Personal safety is always the priority, warning against rushing into the middle of a gunfight to help.
The trainers also stressed that not every intervention needed to involve contact. Someone needs to make sure a 911 call occurs. Others can take steps to maintain order around a victim, perhaps clearing a path so emergency vehicles aren’t delayed. When medical personnel arrive, they said, it helps if someone can report what’s happened.
Then the group began cycling through the five stations staffed by Temple University Hospital volunteers. Abdullah watched as Khyzaire Wright, 11, played dead, and let others carry him to safety.
“Most of the times it’s the kids who are the victims, or they’re the first on the scene. It’s them on the basketball court playing ’til the dark of night. It’s them at the swimming pool,” Abdullah said.
After his acting turn, Khyzaire said he would come to the training because “I want to know how to survive. I was always scared.” His 19-year-old cousin was shot and killed in 2014.
“Now I’ll be the one to help, to talk and even touch them to keep them alive,” he said.
The Barnes sisters – Jodea, 9 and Jahme, 11 – left their American Girl dolls, Serenity and Elizabeth, at home to attend the training. They said they had learned the best thing they could do in an emergency was to call for help and stay out of the way. Both their father and their sister have survived being shot.
“I try to go inside early at night,” Jahme said. “When I see a car come around the corner, I duck behind the other cars because you never know who could be in that car and what that person could do.”
Bryan assigned one man the role of victim and told the rest of the group to pretend they were at a block party. All of them – even the nurses in their scrubs – began dancing to unheard music.
Then the gunshots – shouts by Bryan – rang out, and the victim fell in the middle of the group. Some people froze, others ran, others began shouting. There was initial chaos, but slowly order came to the scene:
“I’m calling 911!” one woman shouted. A man on his knees spoke loudly to the victim on the ground, “Come to me! Can you come to me?” Another man tried to keep people at bay while a third pretended to be on alert for the ambulance.
The scene ended with the Temple team applauding the newly trained residents. There was laughter and high-fives and hugs as people went their separate ways, many promising to attend another session and to bring others.
“This is not a war zone,” Bryan said, but a community grappling with a serious violence problem. “And people are working very hard to fix it.”