A mother and son from south London are among the authors of a new study revealing the true scale of knife and gunshot injuries treated at King’s College Hospital, including a staggering 478 in one year alone.
James Olding, from Crystal Palace, is training as an oral maxillofacial surgeon, a highly specialised type of head and neck surgery requiring both a medical and dental degrees.
He has worked at King’s College Hospital with consultant Kathy Fan for two years, and is part of a team who treated 65 people between 2016 and 2017 with severe penetrating wounds to the head and neck.
These experiences at King’s spurred him to analyse the cases they have treated, and others from the hospital’s trauma wards, ranging from self-harm, terrorist attacks, and ‘interpersonal violence’ – a catch-all term including domestic assaults and gang-related injuries.
Their research outlines not only the rapidly rising number of knife and gun injuries, and those caused by other objects, from bottles to spanners, but also the need for hospitals less equipped or accustomed to injuries of this nature to be prepared. This type of violence is growing around the country, not just in London and its outer reaches.
James couldn’t have produced the analysis without input from King’s lead trauma nurse; his mum, Carole.
Carole, who joined the hospital in 2002 as its only trauma nurse, now leads a nursing team responding to some of the most devastating injuries, including those flown in by air ambulance.
She works closely with Redthread, the charity that tries to help people escape a cycle of violence while they are recovering from their injuries and at a ‘teachable moment’, profiled in the News.
When asked if working together was planned, James laughs “absolutely not!”
The former John Fisher school student first came to King’s on a student placement at eighteen, where he saw the A&E department in action, before visiting the oral and maxillofacial surgeons.
Carole remembers: “I said to him that it’s really worth seeing what they do as it’s some of the most worthwhile work.
“He came out and said: ‘I’m going to be an oral maxillofacial surgeon’; and he’s never deviated from that.”
James, who has witnessed a gunshot incident outside his own home in Stockwell, says: “If you look at the data I analysed there is a real focus around Camberwell, Stockwell, Vauxhall, Brixton, places like that.”
But he also highlights the significant, and growing, minority of those treated coming from outer London and Kent.
“Postcodes are definitely diversifying, and from my personal experience involving night shifts in this trauma centre and others, this involves clear gang injuries, where they’ve tried to give patients a ‘smile’, or others that it don’t seem gang related.
“In many cases patients have tried to avoid disclosing that it was a knife injury, or deny it, even though clinically it is clearly from a knife.”
He has had several cases of people absconding as soon as any police involvement is mentioned, making it likely the number of cases they compiled is the tip of the iceberg.
A true figure could be twice as high. And these are only the injuries seen by the major trauma team.
Part of the reason King’s saw an increase in these serious types of injuries is by nature of it becoming a major trauma centre in 2010, now serving Kent, too.
But every year since then, the numbers have still gone up, including a 20 per cent jump in one year alone.
Some are from terror attacks, characteristically involving more frenzied, deep wounds – stabbing to kill.
And, as Kathy adds, there is a particularly emotional aspect to their line of work.
“Injuring someone’s face has a meaning”, she says. “That person is never going to forget because they see it all the time.
“Your face is your identity. We see people with scars who want to be rid of them, but they never go away completely.
“We have people saying they don’t want their children to see them like this.”
Kathy tells one story about a boy who was injured after getting on the wrong bus.
Something as simple as going down the wrong road led to him being seriously hurt, all because he crossed an invisible boundary.
Their research is already forming part of the national debate on knife crime, and how different groups from schools, hospitals, police and the wider community can come together to tackle it.
But behind each statistic there is a real person, often terrified.
“I see the serious injuries but it often starts with a little scratch,” says Carole.
“Some of these boys have been groomed from a very early age by older boys in the gang.
“They are seen as male role models, but what they need is to stay in school and realise they could be a barrister and a doctor.
“Sometimes, they are actually doing what they’re doing and putting their lives at risk, to keep the family going as there’s not enough money.
“They’re not all nice – some are absolutely awful – but I do feel so sorry for them because they’re in a cycle of violence.