Sylvia should have spent her seventeenth birthday anywhere but where she did-in jail for conspiracy to commit murder.
But the soft-spoken Latina joined a gang as a child and began a life punctuated by violence that culminated in the stabbing death of a 25-year-old South Central man. She now faces a possible life sentence in prison.
Wearing an orange jail-issue jumpsuit and bearing tiny gang tattoos like black freckles by her eyes, Sylvia said she does not know how many of her friends have assaulted others or been shot or killed themselves. After a moment she added: “Too many.”
LAC+USC Senior Trauma Surgeon Juan Asensio said he could not agree more.
As a physician responsible for saving lives and bodies ripped apart by bullets, he recently met with Sylvia and about 80 other youngsters at Juvenile Hall to deliver a fiery, in-your-face anti-violence message aimed at showing them the catastrophic injuries their actions can cause.
Several times each year, Asensio, who serves as chief of trauma unit A in the division of trauma and critical care at LAC+USC Medical Center, journeys with his peers to inner-city high schools to encourage students to embrace education and avoid gangs and violence.
During this recent visit to Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall, members of the audience affected a blasé attitude when Asensio began his talk. Most dropped that attitude as he launched an emotional appeal using graphic color slides and blunt street language to get their attention.
He showed slides of an AK-47 assault rifle designed for warfare that some gang members now favor for use in drive-bys and a few boys in the crowd murmured in approval. They went silent as next slide showed the blood-soaked remnants of an arm blown apart by a bullet.
Asensio asked, “Do you think this can’t happen to you? Do you think this doesn’t hurt?”
Slides on the screen showed a succession of gruesome chest injuries, limb amputations and shredded internal organs, causing many in the audience to groan and avert their eyes. Still, Asensio hammered away at the youngsters urging them to take responsibility for their lives and their actions and walk away from violence.
“For us in the operating room, we have to make tough decisions to save lives. But you have a far easier decision to make. You have to decide: Do I want to save myself? Do I ever want to come back to a place like this? Do I want to go to the Big Joint? Do I want to save my parents and grandparents the grief?”
Showing a slide of a nine- month old fetus whose head was pierced by the bullet that struck his mother’s abdomen, Asensio demanded in a voice shaking with disgust and anger:
“What did this child ever do to deserve this? He didn’t flash a gang sign. He didn’t do anything.”
Asensio stopped his speech and let the room fall silent. One boy in the audience recoiled from the screen and lay on his back, rubbing his face with the palms of both hands. Others stared at the floor and a few blinked away tears.
“What did this child ever do to deserve this?” Asensio asked again. “Nothing.”
Throughout the presentation, Asensio emphasized that he understood the impoverished and underprivileged world in which they live. Having grown up in a squalid tin shack neighborhood in Havana and later in the mean streets of Chicago, he faced poverty, racism and constant threats from gang members who attempted unsuccessfully to recruit him.
Still, though he understands the alienation many inner city youths feel from society, he said he accepts no excuse for gangbanging.
Raising his voice frequently, he never disguised his contempt for those who would use violence to solve their problems.
“I am pissed off. I’m pissed off that we have kids out there who don’t know how to read who think violence is the answer to everything,” he said.
Rodney Tyson, lead physician assistant for division of trauma, Department of Surgery, spoke next and described to the audience how he started out like them. He talked about growing up in the Bronx where he once served 30 days in juvenile detention for acting as an enforcer for a local extortion racket and how that experience made him want to change.
“Anybody can call himself a tough guy and pick up a gun but the real tough guy is the one who hits the books and goes to practice and goes to work. It’s not glamorous but you sleep better at night and you don’t have to worry about people coming to kill you or having the police coming over and giving you and your family grief,” Tyson said.
Afterwards, Tyson said: “We’re not telling them what to do. We’re just emphasizing that everyone has choices to make. We let them know they have a choice whether or not they want to listen to us. They just need to make positive choices.”
Tyson said that he knows a lot of the people he and Asensio talk to get the message.
“I’ve had guys come up to me in s supermarket and at the Burger King near the hospital and say ‘thank you’ for talking to them. They’ll say, ‘Now I want to be a doctor or physician’s assistant. I want to help people too,'” he said.
“That’s really why we do it. That’s why I went into medicine. It wasn’t the money or the prestige. It was just to hear a person say, ‘You helped. Thanks a lot.'”
Sylvia said her future might have been much different if she had met speakers like Tyson and Asensio a few years ago because their message hit home.
“I like the way [Asensio] speaks. He doesn’t bite his tongue, he just tells it straight out,” she said.
She added that seeing all the slides and hearing the stories of ruined lives “just makes you feel sad. It’s like torture to us because we see the way that we hurt people. It makes me feel uncomfortable, but why shouldn’t I go through that? I caused it myself.”
Asensio said he began his anti-violence program out of a sense of social responsibility.
“We need doctors who have a social conscience because [violence] is not just a physical problem. It’s a social problem. We do a wonderful job of taking care of people, and researching and teaching, but one component is missing-prevention,” he said.
Although Asensio has no hard data that his lectures have made a difference, he said he has enough anecdotal evidence in the form of letters from youngsters whose attitudes he’s changed to feel successful.
Besides, he added, “If I reach just one and they change their ways, then I’ve done what I set out to do.”