An Unexpected Trauma
Date Published: June 27, 2018
Dennis S. Charney, MD, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and resilience expert, shares his journey of recovery after being ambushed by a gunman at his favorite local deli.
He describes how he used strategies based on his own resilience research to cope and move forward through his mentally and physically grueling recovery.
Hi everyone, I'm Ilana Nikravesh, and we're excited to debut our new podcast called "Road to Resilience," produced by the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. This monthly podcast gives unique insight on how to be resilient, and you'll hear from our renowned experts as they break this all down. We begin with one of our leaders, Dr. Dennis Charney, the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, a scientist known worldwide for his studies on resilience and trauma. He'll take you on his emotional journey explaining how he put this research to personal use when he suddenly became the victim of a high-profile crime that almost turned deadly. Take a listen as he details his recovery. It was a standard morning, August 29, 2016, at the popular Lange's Deli in the quiet, upscale town of Chappaqua, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan.
Dr. Charney: 00:51
Lange's Deli, which is a landmark in Chappaqua. The Clintons go there. The cops go there, the fireman. It's--think of "Cheers," that old TV show. And they know everybody. They know me.
Around 7:00 AM Dr. Dennis made his daily breakfast stop here before driving into the city for work.
Dr. Charney: 01:11
I stopped, parked my car in front of Lange's, and went in and ordered my standard bagel, light on the butter, and iced coffee. And then I went out to go to my car and all of a sudden I heard a loud "boom" and looked at my shoulder and saw that blood was coming out of my shoulder.
At 65 years old, he had just become a trauma victim himself, the target of an attempted murder.
01:44 And I glanced in front of me and saw a person holding a shotgun. But my immediate reaction was the "fight or flight" reaction to get myself to safety.
More than a dozen shotgun pellet struck Dr. Charney in his right side. In that moment, he didn't recognize the shooter. He had no time to even think about who just tried to kill him.
Dr. Charney: 02:11
So I ran back into Lange's and I yelled out, I said, "I was shot." And then the folks in the deli started reacting. One of my friends who works behind the counter, George, immediately called the police. And as he told me later, he was gonna make sure that my assailant did not come in to that deli one way or the other.
Police and paramedics rushed over to Lange's. Dr. Charney, a grandfather of four, remembers bleeding in that deli with his adrenaline pumping.
Dr. Charney: 02:48
The only question question was survival at that time. I kind of said, 'Let's survive and figure it out later why it happened.'
And the pain--Describe the pain that you felt.
Dr. Charney: 02:58
I felt severe in my right side, my right shoulder. I really couldn't move my right shoulder and eventually I found out that I had been hit with around 15 pellets from the shotgun. It had penetrated my shoulder. Some of the pellets had penetrated into my lung cavity and through my diaphragm into around my liver. And a couple of my ribs were broken as well. So it was a pretty significant injury. And ultimately I lost half of my blood.
The ambulance raced into the emergency room, and it was here when Dr. Charney first started hearing about moments of heroism--complete strangers going above and beyond to help.
Dr. Charney: 03:45
There was one moment there that still is very emotional to me. One of the police officers who was actually off duty followed the ambulance, sat outside my room to protect me in case there was somebody else who's going to come and try to hurt me.
Dr. Charney: 04:03
Just voluntary. Police officer Davenport. My son's there and he's thanking police officer Davenport for guarding us even though he was off-duty. And police officer Davenport said to my son, "I just wish I was there to take the bullets." And that's somebody who didn't even know me.
Are you in contact with him?
Dr. Charney: 04:26
I still see him around Chappaqua and, you know, I've given talks about what happened to me and I always say that I didn't know police officer Davenport, but now I will forever.
That's just one of the stories that gave him so much comfort as the magnitude of the situation started to sink in. When did you learn that you were the target?
Dr. Charney: 04:47
As I was getting treatment, I started to think, well, who would shoot me? And after--it might've been a couple of hours, but I eventually started thinking, 'maybe it was that faculty member that we fired a couple of years ago.' But I had no contact with that person. But it just occurred to me, 'Is there anybody that would want to shoot me that I knew?' The police officers came and said, "We got him," and they mentioned his name.
The shooter, 49-year-old Hengjun Chao, a name he quickly remembered. Their last encounter dates back to 2009 when Dr. Charney fired the former Mount Sinai researcher for data fraud. Investigators say Chao retaliated. He ambushed Dr. Charney in revenge and carefully plotted the crime. Chao is now serving 28 years in prison after police arrested him at Lange's Deli that day. And to put the pieces together, what was your reaction?
Dr. Charney: 05:44
My reaction was I barely knew that person. Because he had gone through a process—He had committed scientific misconduct, and the results of that investigation came to me at the end when I decided that it at such a level of scientific misconduct that he needed to be terminated. But he became obsessed with me, and he planned the attack over weeks and months.
And you had no idea that he would ever have been capable of doing something like this?
Dr. Charney: 06:15
Yeah, and he was following me. He began to know my habits. That's why he turned up at Lange's at that time in the morning. And we later found out that he had—he knew where I lived and he had come at one point to my house and saw my wife playing with my grandchildren.
The sense of violation—so much to grasp when Dr. Charney needed critical medical care to survive. He spent five days in intensive care at the Mount Sinai Hospital where doctors told him one of the shotgun pellets landed dangerously close to a critical vessel.
Dr. Charney: 06:46
When I found all that out, I said, "Wow, that was lucky."
How did you get through that hospital stay?
Dr. Charney: 06:53
I studied resilience. Still do for decades. So I started to think, "OK, now I'm going to have to walk the walk." Because I'd never been traumatized like this, but I had studied people who have been traumatized and had come to admire them. So that was a motivating factor that I was going to have to demonstrate courage and resilience facing my trauma.
How did your research and expertise better prepare you for dealing with this trauma?
Dr. Charney: 07:22
Nothing fully prepares you. The research that we did, you know, gave, in a sense, a psychological toolbox to utilize when you've been traumatized. But you still need to have, kind of, a certain character and prior personal experience that you can call on to help you following a trauma.
It's important to know Dr. Charney has dedicated his life to studying trauma and resilience, and he's recognized across the world for this. In fact, he created his own prescription to resilience. He essentially broke down complicated science into a simple guide that everyday people can use to master life's greatest challenges. It's basically a way to retrain your brain to become stronger. It's a prescription Dr. Charney has written books about, including one that was so well-received he just published a second edition. What is your prescription to resilience?
Dr. Charney: 08:16
There are several parts to it. One is: Can you train yourself to be a more resilient person? So when something terrible happens you're prepared as best as you can. And there you want to utilize putting yourself out of your comfort zone in different situations. You know, don't traumatize yourself but challenge yourself where you might be feeling a little bit nervous, like, are you going to be able to do something? And then you find that you're able to do it. And that gives you a certain, you know, confidence and skills that you can call upon when you're faced with situation that you're not comfortable with. And if you keep doing that before you know it, you know, you have a confidence and an ability to calm yourself under stress, you can figure out how to deal with it when you're facing a difficult situation. You want to have role models in your life. Having mentors, positive relationships—so that helps you build resilience so that when you're faced with a challenge you can say, "What would my mentor or role model do in these situations?
How did you use this when you were in the hospital?
Dr. Charney: 09:28
I had several role models. A couple were from people we ended up interviewing and learning, you know, from as part of our research in resilience.
What's their background?
Dr. Charney: 09:39
They included the POWs from Vietnam who were held for six to eight years in prison and were heavily tortured and many of them, after they were released, achieved great things in their life. Um, we got to know Navy SEALs. I knew those people personally, and so I would think, you know, "If they could do it—I have one trauma. Many of them had multiple." Those were some of people I thought of when I was recovering.
And it was beneficial.
Dr. Charney: 10:09
It was definitely beneficial.
And another prescription Dr. Charney put to use—
Dr. Charney: 10:13
A sense of a moral purpose in your life that define, you know, who you are. Sometimes that relates to faith, but it can be separate from faith. That you're confident than your sense of self, and that no matter what happens to you, that doesn't change. That can be very helpful.
Something he also found very helpful—setting goals, a prescription that perhaps resonated the most.
Dr. Charney: 10:39
I set goals for myself right away and I learned that from my resilience work. So when I was in the ICU, I said to the doctor who's in charge of my care, I said, "I have to give that White Coat speech." The White Coat speech is a speech to the medical students who are just starting medical school. It's a very moving ceremony where we put on white coats literally to the first-year medical students as they start medical school.
A speech he wasn't about to miss. You'll hear more about that later. Back in intensive care, Dr. Charney focused on staying positive and search for inspiration. And for him it came from an unexpected source.
Dr. Charney: 11:22
And this sounds silly, but I'm among the millions of fanatic Bruce Springsteen fans. And he wrote a song "Tougher Than the Rest." [music] Now the song is not exactly like what happened to me, but that phrase, that I was going to be tougher than the rest just kept running through my mind when I was in the ICU. That I was going to be tougher than the rest in my recovery from this shooting.
So the song helped you significantly—
Dr. Charney: 11:59
It sounds strange, but it did. I want to tell Bruce that someday, personally.
Maybe someday you can meet him.
Dr. Charney: 12:07
Oh, I hope so.
So that's a long-term ambition. But in the short term, Springsteen helped him fight through that hospital stay and get through some emotionally grueling moments that immediately followed. Describe your first night at home.
Dr. Charney: 12:21
It felt good to be home with my family, but the recovery from trauma is a gradual process. So, you know, in the beginning I had trouble sleeping.
Dr. Charney is pioneered breakthrough research based on recovery and the neurobiology of depression, PTSD, and anxiety. So he knows all of the symptoms. But now he had to face some of this emotional distress himself for the very first time.
Dr. Charney: 12:47
I didn't develop the full disorder of PTSD. But anybody who's been traumatized will experience symptoms related to PTSD. You'll have, um, you have reminders of the trauma in the beginning in particular and that fades as time goes on. But certainly in the beginning, the first couple of weeks or months, you re-enact in your mind what happened, try to understand it. Your sleep will be affected. You'll try to understand why it happened, was there any rationale? In terms of reminders, you know, like in my case, one of the first things that happened after I, as I was being shot, I heard a loud noise. And uh, in the beginning, that's not really now, but in the beginning, in my recovery, when I heard a loud noise, my body, you know, would have like an involuntary, you know, reaction, like what was that? So you'll have the physical reminder, like a loud noise, you'll have the, you know, the memories of what happened.
Dr. Charney: 13:59
Were you in fear? It wasn't fear, like I thought somebody was going to attack me in the house, but it was more of a general nonspecific fear, especially in the dark.
Why the dark? Why did that have an effect on you?
Dr. Charney: 14:18
At night, when it's quiet and it's dark, that's when your mind starts to kind of relive, you know, what happened to you. That's when you experience more of a sense of anxiety.
So describe one of your worst nights. When you're sitting there in the dark, and your mind is racing. What goes through your mind?
Dr. Charney: 14:38
What goes through your mind is, "How am I going to recover? Am I going to become myself again? Uh, why did this happen? Worried about how my family was going to recover. My wife was, "Why would somebody wanna murder my husband? You know, and we've been together for 50 years. You question your faith, you question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" You just start thinking all those thoughts, and eventually you work to make sense of them and move on.
Moving on—a driving force for Dr. Charney, even while battling reoccurring memories.
Dr. Charney: 15:12
There's a biology to the encoding of traumatic memories and the, you know, the ability to help them recede. You can always recall them. They're always there, you know, that's why I say you're always a trauma victim. But it's— the way you think about it is it's the memories that are the driver of how you're gonna recover. Those that recover and can lead a normal life and even become stronger—they have the ability through sometimes therapy and sometimes, um, you know, through family support and so forth, move on with their lives so that the memories, you know, don't intrude on your life and don't dominate your life. Those who develop post-traumatic stress disorder, the memories are intruding on their life to a major degree. So it inhibits them from moving forward, and that's frequently the focus of therapy.
What advice do you have for people who have been through similar traumas who don't process it as well, who are dealing with PTSD, anxiety?
Dr. Charney: 16:21
First they have to understand that what they're experiencing is normal, meaning the reminders both in your mind, what happened, sleep disturbances in the beginning, your body reacting to what's going on around you in an exaggerated way related to the trauma—that that's all part of the natural reaction and ultimately the recovery process. What's also important is to have support from your family and friends so that you feel, you know, like you're not alone in the process. And you should also have confidence that while you'll always be a trauma victim, that there will always be the memories, that there is a recovery process that you can get back to being yourself again.
Dr. Charney had his mind set on being himself again. He pushed through rigorous physical therapy and mentally challenging times. But his main motivation for a quick recovery—making it to that White Coat ceremony. Remember, that's the goal he set for himself in the ICU, part of his prescription to resilience.
Dr. Charney: 17:36
I would just focus like a laser beam. "I'm giving that white coat speech and getting back to work and being me."
And thanks to that focus he achieved that goal. Dr. Charney arrived at that ceremony just two weeks after the shotgun blast almost ended his life. And you were determined to make it there.
Dr. Charney: 17:53
I was determined to make it there.
Dr. Charney stood in front of hundreds of new Mount Sinai doctors where he welcomed the Class of 2020 to the medical profession. It's a ritual in the medical world.
Dr. Charney: 18:04
Everybody in the room knew that I had been shot and this was I'm coming back. So I wanted to use what happened to me as a message to the students.
And as soon as he stepped on stage, the crowd gave him a greeting of a lifetime—a standing ovation he will always remember.
Welcome back, Dr. Charney. [applause]
Dr. Charney: 18:26
Thank you. You just made it harder to get through the speech, but I'll do my best. Today, I talk to you as dean and also as someone who has recently experienced a great personal trauma. This ceremony is the first time I've returned since the attack. During this time I've reflected on concerns, both great and small. Bonds we form. The choices we make. The paths we choose.
He shaed how this attack gave them a new perspective on what it means to be a doctor and the importance of resilience in recovery. He wanted them to find motivation from his experience.
Dr. Charney: 19:12
We are often called upon to show strength during professional and personal tragedy. This is both a burden and a privilege—to show strength, to show courage, to inspire those around us by demonstrating grace under duress. This is a gift unlike any in the world. These next four years of your life will be trying. It will be a challenge to find a balance between achieving success in school and fulfillment in other aspects of life. I know you only get one life, and in anything you do what matters most is that you have integrity and stand for what you believe in. As a doctor this isn't just a choice—it's a commitment we make to our patients. And finally, I know bad stuff does happen. A bad thing happened to me. You will face tough times, but if you stay the course, nose to the grindstone, eyes to the stars, ultimately you will emerge further down the road tougher than the rest. Or as Ernest Hemingway said, "The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strongest broken places." Thank you very much. [applause]
It turns out the speech marks one of the highlights of his accomplished career.
Dr. Charney: 20:49
It was probably the best speech I've ever given and ever will give because of the moment. So it was a very special day.
Describe what you are feeling in that moment.
Dr. Charney: 20:58
I thought that I could give a message to them that they won't forget. Because most of the time students forget who gave them a speech at graduation or events like this. But I thought, I think they're going to remember this one. So I was looking forward to it. It was fun to give.
And that's a speech you'll never forget.
Dr. Charney: 21:18
How are you going to top that one?
Dr. Charney: 21:20
I won't. [chuckles] I can't. I know that.
So that's something Dr. Charney won't even attempt. To this day he still thinks about that speech and recognizes that significant mark this left on both his life and the crowd full of doctors.
Dr. Charney: 21:36
We all face traumas in their life. We all face family members passing away. Nobody goes unscathed in life.
So by sharing his traumatic experience and explaining how he turned this into a positive by implementing his own prescription to resilience, he can ultimately help others make it through life's greatest challenges.
Dr. Charney: 21:56
You have to put your trauma in context. You can't undo it. It happened. It's always going to be part of you. But in many cases, and I would say my case is one of them, you can take the traumatic experience, learn from it, incorporate it into who you are, and ultimately become a stronger person. And you can do that. It takes time, but you can have that outcome.
And that's advice he wants trauma victims to live by. You've been listening to episode one of the podcast series "Road to Resilience," where our renowned dean, Dr. Dennis Charney, has detailed how he used resilience to mentally recover after being ambushed by a gunman. Make sure to check out next month's episode where he talks about facing the man who tried to kill him months after the crime and how he used resilience to stay strong, find forgiveness, and become an even stronger leader. You don't want to miss it.