Dr. Najma Ahmed in a trauma room at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto (Photo: Christopher Katsarov)


Taking a stand against gun violence

Trauma surgeon Najma Ahmed, PhD’90, MDCM’92, performed life-saving operations on three of the victims of last year's mass shooting on the Danforth in Toronto. Now she is the public face for a growing movement of Canadian doctors who are calling for stricter laws on guns.

Story by Sheldon Gordon

May 2019

On a Sunday night in July 2018, St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto declared a “code orange” in response to a mass shooting on Danforth Avenue – one of the worst acts of gun violence in the city’s history.

Dr. Najma Ahmed, PhD’90, MDCM’92, an on-call trauma surgeon and the hospital’s acting medical director, rushed from her home to the operating room, where she performed life-saving surgery on three of the five victims who were brought to St. Mike’s.

As one of two adult trauma centres in Toronto, St. Mike’s regularly treats patients injured by shootings, stabbings, and car crashes. “But this was the first mass casualty event that I was intimately involved with,” Ahmed says. She spent from 10:30 pm until 6 am in the OR. “I wasn’t physically exhausted – that didn’t come for a week or so – but I was emotionally exhausted by the enormity of the situation and how unbelievable it was for something like this to happen in our city.”

In the following weeks, with the public focused on gun violence, the moment seemed right to launch an initiative that Ahmed says had been “percolating” in her mind for a decade. She co-founded Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns (CDPG), a group of 200 health care providers that urges a nationwide ban on private ownership of handguns and assault-style weapons.

“I and my colleagues had been watching this trend of increasing severity and frequency of gun violence over the last decade and thinking that something has to be done about it,” says Ahmed. The CDPG group, comprising mainly emergency room physicians and trauma surgeons, has pressed lawmakers to treat gun violence as a preventable public health issue.

Ahmed testified in February before a Senate committee in support of Bill C-71, a proposed law that would expand the scope of background checks on prospective gun owners. “We feel that it doesn’t go far enough, but it is an important legislative effort in the right direction,” she says.

Ahmed’s outspoken push for gun control has made her a target of Canada’s firearms lobby. Gun rights supporters made 70 complaints to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, arguing that her advocacy was an “abuse” of her position as a doctor. The college dismissed the complaints in March. “It was upsetting to me, but I wasn’t overly concerned,” Ahmed says.

“This is not something I pulled out of thin air,” says Ahmed. She notes that a dozen Canadian medical groups have endorsed the CDPG call for more curbs on guns. They include the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the Canadian Association of General Surgeons, the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians and the Ontario Medical Association.

“I don’t think of myself as a ‘celebrity physician’ at all,” says Ahmed, but she has become the public face for Canadian physicians in favour of tighter restrictions on guns. The Canadian Medical Association Journal put Ahmed on the cover of its April 23 edition, noting in an editorial that the gun lobby’s efforts to intimidate her and other doctors who are calling for gun control measures “appear to have failed spectacularly.”

CDPG brought its campaign to the streets in a National Day of Action in early April. Doctors in 16 cities organized rallies, marches, and information sessions to call for change.

Ahmed says she opted to specialize in trauma medicine, realizing that, with the right team, “you could change the course of someone’s life.”

After earning her medical degree, Ahmed did her residency at McGill, “I learned from amazing faculty, who helped me mature into the surgeon I became. What was most memorable [were] the patients – their humanity, how we helped them, how they helped us.”

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