Geri Pettis, a pediatric violence recovery specialist at University of Chicago Medicine has engaged 95 child and teenage victims of violence so far this summer, a staggering number.
Among them: Several teens who have been rushed to Comer Children’s Hospital multiple times for gunshot injuries and a one-month-old girl shot in the head during a mass shooting while strapped in her car seat.
Pettis works with pediatric patients in the hospital’s Violence Recovery Program (VRP), which identifies patients at risk of repeat injuries from violence and connects them to hospital and community-based services.
Since May 2020, she has seen 272 patients.
“This is the kind of work you wish you didn’t have to do, but it's so rewarding,” says Pettis. “Our patients receive case management and crisis intervention services. We connect families to mental health counseling. We take a holistic approach to make sure they're safe and not re-injured.”
The program was launched in 2018 to serve adult and pediatric trauma patients and their families, the same year UChicago Medicine opened a Level 1 adult trauma center. Part of the Urban Health Initiative, it is the most comprehensive hospital-based violence recovery program in the city—and a national model.
In its first year, VRP engaged 792 patients and 334 families dealing with the aftermath of gunshot wounds, stabbing injuries and assaults.
The VRP received funding from UChicago Medicine’s BHC (Block Hassenfeld Casdin) Collaborative for Family Resilience. The BHC Collaborative provides personalized holistic care for children and families whether the child is the direct victim or a witness to a close family member’s trauma.
BHC Collaborative’s approach represents a dramatic shift in trauma care: In addition to medical treatment, it provides essential wraparound services—food, housing, and vocational and other services—to help children and their families during and after their hospital stay.
The model has been expanding to meet the various needs of patients and families and to reduce retaliatory violence.
Pettis, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, says her love of children and her family background help explain why she was drawn to her job. Her mother’s death from cancer when she was 17 gave her a deep understanding of grief and loss. Her son, Gabriel, 16, is the same age as some of her patients.
“I’m empathetic and an active listener,” she says. “I understand that emotions affect people differently and you have to talk to individuals going through a traumatic moment with love and patience.”
Her work starts when patients arrive at the emergency department (ED) and continues through their hospitalization and after they are discharged.
When her pager goes off, she heads to the ED. She might first see a patient in a trauma bay undergoing treatment. If the patient is alert, she will introduce herself and offer comfort. She stays in contact with medical staff to get patient updates for families.
For those admitted to the hospital, Pettis does “rounds,” or daily check-ins at the bedside, much like doctors do, providing what is referred to as psychological first aid.
“I observe the patient and family members and their interactions, assessing them for acute stress, which can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “Sometimes I just sit and listen as I figure out what services they might need.”
Children often can’t articulate their feelings. Their stress might manifest in sleeplessness, disorientation and agitation. When they’re medically stable, Pettis talks, draws or plays video games with them.
Kids growing up in violent circumstances can be constantly on guard and hypervigilant. They need to achieve a calm, peaceful state to fully recover, Pettis says. So, she often teaches them breathing techniques.
Teenagers who have been violently injured are referred to violence interrupters, who are trained to help them change their thinking and behaviors.
“Our program is actively working to not just patch up our patients, but helping them make a change in how they look at the world,” Pettis says. “If we can color their worldview in a more positive way, then we've done our work.”
The VRP also helps patients and their families recover from other kinds of trauma including domestic, sexual and child abuse.
The violence recovery team works closely with child life specialists, chaplains and many others, including staff with the Recovery & Empowerment After Community Trauma (REACT) Clinic.
Sonya Mathies Dinizulu, PhD, co-director of the REACT clinic, says Pettis is “a fierce advocate,” who speaks with and about patients with genuine concern.
"Geri is incredibly compassionate, very trauma-informed and highly responsive to our families—and our team,” Dinizulu says. “She truly is selfless. I love working with her.”
Pettis is proud of the life-changing work that she and her colleagues do every day for patients.
“It's the engagement. It’s connecting them with the services they need. It’s making a strong empathetic connection while they're inpatients,” she says. “And it’s trying to make a lasting impression because I do believe that a lot of what I do, and what my team does, will make an indelible imprint on their future. That's what keeps us going.”