Central Florida medical professionals describe the effect gun violence is having on them

ORLANDO, Fla. — Karen Keene was living an amazing life, working in marketing and communications at some of the largest law firms in Central Florida. And then her world was shattered along with some of her organs on what was a perfectly normal day.


She spent part of it, putting the finishing touches on a speech for a women’s leadership conference. “It sounded like very high-pitched fireworks. I went toward the front of the house, and I got as far as the front entrance and the entire front door blew in. All I saw was a very tall figure, he had grey hair and he started shooting immediately. And I had no idea who it was,” Keene recalls.

Her own brother had broken into her Maitland home, where she lived with her husband, and he let off enough high-powered rounds to seriously injure Keene and the gunshot injuries killed her husband, Steve. “I had put my weight up against the door as much as I could, but bullet holes started coming through the bathroom door and within seconds, I knew, that I was being shot in my stomach because I was holding my stomach and I remember that I was also shot in the leg and there was blood coming out on the floor. I saw a piece of my flesh on the wall,” Keene said.

She was in a coma for nine days and by the time she woke up, she was intubated, and the world had fallen into a global pandemic. “And in addition to that I had to be told Steve had died, I was told the shooter was my brother and I was told we were on lockdown because of COVID, and I didn’t even understand because I didn’t know what COVID was.”

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For the first time 9-Investigates is showing you gun violence data that has never been seen, publicly. The data is collected by the state of Florida and provided by every hospital in the state. Channel 9 Anchor and Investigative Reporter Daralene Jones spent weeks analyzing that data, over a five-year period, starting with 2019, through 2023, and the numbers provide shocking insight into just how significant gun violence is in our state and right here in Central Florida. It’s important because typically, gun violence data is provided by law enforcement, but these numbers are recorded by the hospitals based on every patient treated for a gunshot wound.

Emergency responders have come to expect the shooting calls that ring into 9-1-1 dispatchers, some from the victims, struggling to stay alive. “I would say it’s not a weekly basis, it’s a daily basis. It’s not uncommon sometimes for us to see half a dozen gunshot wounds a day. It’s very, very common. You still realize it’s a human being. You realize it’s someone’s father, mother, son, daughter. I don’t think you ever become desensitized,” Dr. Michael Cheatham said.

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Dr. Cheatham is an Assistant Vice President and Chief Surgical Officer at Orlando Health, the area’s only level one trauma center. “We’re certainly seeing more gunshot wounds than we used to in years past and the pattern of gunshot wounds has changed,” Dr. Cheatham told Jones.

9-investigates spent weeks analyzing reports from the agency for healthcare administration, dating back to 2019. Nearly 25,000 gunshot victims were rushed to emergency rooms across the state through the end of 2023, according to state records.

The average was about 4,000 each year for all hospitals. More than 18,000 patients were admitted for short and long-term care. “We tend to see these patients over and over because they tend to stay in the hospital weeks, sometimes months. I have one patient I’ve operated on 26 times in 15 years since his gunshot wound. It has impacted his entire life. It has impacted his family’s life. It has changed the trajectory of his life, what he does, what he’s able to do. That bullet hits the victim, changes their life forever,” Dr. Cheatham said.

Read: 4th suspect arrested in Orlando drive-by shooting that killed man, 6-year-old girl

In Central Florida, an average of about 4,000 each year across -thousand each year across these counties from age 1 to 93 years old. Dr. Donald Plumley treats the smallest of patients who come into the ER at Orlando Heath. “It’s unfathomable. I take care of children every day. It’s our most valuable asset, the children inured are usually the innocent bystanders, that makes it even harder,” Dr. Plumley said. And bullets often have devastating impact on the body of a child. “The children have less boney mass, more surface area, more cartilage, so as a bullet traverses through a child, it’s terribly damaging, especially high velocity bullets, can lead to amputation.”

Karen Keene was shot with high velocity rounds, which has become more common in emergency rooms. “We used to see quite a few, in fact, predominately low velocity gunshot wounds, .22 caliber, .38 caliber, we rarely see those anymore. Nowadays, we’re primarily seeing 9mm handguns, we’re seeing high velocity rifle rounds, AR15, AK47, so the bullet wounds we’re seeing are much more devastating than they were in year’s past,” Dr. Cheatham said.

And seeing that damage to the body days in and out takes a toll on the doctors and nurses responsible for trying to keep the gunshot wound victims alive. “Our physicians, nurses are impacted by trauma and if left unabated can have long lasting impacts,” Dr. Mary Senne said. As a psychologist, she started at Orlando Health shortly before the Pulse Nightclub Massacre in 2016. But the in house service she and her team now provide for the medical staff has proven to be a necessity because of the increasing number of trauma patients they see. “With gun violence and what comes through the emergency department, there is a frustration expressed to me by physicians, there is anger, and it can take a toll.” The hospital offers peer support groups and one on one counseling on-site for its medical staff to help. “There is something that could be done. Obviously, we have a constitution, we have laws that enable us citizens to own guns and I fully respect that, but I think there’s something that we need to do to tighten up the laws that govern our country to try to decrease the amount of senseless gunshot wounds that occur,” Dr. Cheatham said.

Karen’s brother, who lived with mental health issues, never got treatment.

She told us she later learned that he had collected an arsenal of weapons, mostly purchased online, where background checks are inconsistent. “No one checked him. No one thought he’s got a lot of guns in a short amount of time. He had everything and most of them were shipped from Pennsylvania,” Keene told Jones.

Her injuries were inflicted with a shotgun, causing extensive and severe tissue damage, leaving her in the hospital initially for three months. “I was not able to walk at all. The shotgun created an evisceration to my small intestine, so my small intestine was protruding from my abdomen,” Keene recalled.  “About a year after the shooting I was not feeling well. I went back into the hospital and apparently, I passed out in my room, a nurse found me, I had coded and that created heart issues that I’m dealing with on a consistent basis. I had a defibrillator placed last year.”

This month, the Department of Justice approved a new rule, requiring more gun sellers to be licensed and run background checks, in part because it says a growing number of unlicensed gun dealers are selling guns for profit to strangers at gun shows and online. “We talk about desensitization, I think even the public has become desensitized to the fact that you’re reporting about, yet another gunshot would, another crime where someone was shot,” Dr. Cheatham said. “When I speak with our colleagues around the world who are trauma surgeons, they laugh at us, they laugh at the U.S. because of how many gunshot wounds we see and the fact that we have not regulated or reduced these illegal firearms that are causing patients harm.”

Though she survived the shooting, Karen’s life will never be the same, physically, mentally or emotionally. Her story, she says, is proof that gun violence can and does happen everywhere. “We had a beautiful home. It was a very safe neighborhood, safe community and there had not been any homicides in more than 10 years. The police chief told us that. So when this happened, it was a shock, not only to our family and friends, it was a shock to the entire community.” Keene said.

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