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Project HEAL in Neptune City, New Jersey, helps victims of violence recover


NEPTUNE CITY – According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 45,000 people were shot dead in the United States in 2020, up 14% from 2019.

Adding to the growing trend is another troubling CDC statistic that the gun deaths among children under the age of 14 rose by 50% over the same period.

At the Jersey Shore University Medical Center, a Hackensack Meridian health facility in Neptune City, Dr. Aakash Shah, who followed these numbers closely that enough was not done to contain the violence before it had consequences.

In March 2021, for example, he founded “Project HEAL”, which stands for Help, Empower, and Lead, which brings victims of violence together with those who were in a position to find solutions and avoid repetition.

“Hurt people, hurt people”

The initiative is based on the recognition that “people get hurt, hurt people,” said Shah.

“As an ambulance, it was just extremely difficult to sew a patient and then send them into circumstances that would almost cut them open again,” said Shah, adding that the “cyclical nature” of violence is all too easily repeated.

“We are bringing a different approach, a public health approach, to the violence that has plagued so many communities and which has increased during this recent pandemic,” he said.

Shah said there are studies showing that up to 40% of people who come to an emergency room for treatment for a violent injury can return with another violent injury within five years and up to 20% can die.

On the other hand, if these victims are provided with mental health and substance use disorder treatment, educational opportunities, and / or job training and placement services, repetitive crime could be reduced by up to 30%, according to Shah.

“I think we can get it right”

Rather than a “treat and release” strategy, Project HEAL encourages team members to “listen, learn from and ultimately change” the circumstances that bring a person to the hospital.

Shah said these will be personal and hopefully lasting relationships.

“You swap names, numbers and say, ‘Look, I’m here to help, I know what you’re going through and I think we can do the right thing for you,'” he said.

“We saw a wood effect”

Anecdotally, Shah even mentioned some clients who were so transformed by their Project HEAL experience that they looked to create their own nonprofit to fight violence.

The program was much more successful than even Shah himself expected. He thought his team could care for 80 or 90 people a year, but in about nine months they have been helping more than 140 people.

“We have seen a woodworking effect where the word of the good work we do has gotten around and suddenly we are seeing more and more people who we can give the care and support they need and deserve,” said Shah.

If you or someone you know in Monmouth and Ocean Counties is the victim of a violent incident, visit Project HEAL’s website or call 732-897-8190.

Patrick Lavery is the New Jersey 101.5 newscaster that afternoon. Follow him on Twitter @ plavery1015 or email [email protected]

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