Amazing Dad: Carnell Cooper

Filed under: Amazing Parents

Dr. Carnell Cooper of Baltimore wants to do more than save lives. He wants to change them. Credit: Dr. Carnell Cooper


Amazing Dad:
Carnell Cooper, who started the University of Maryland Medical Center's Violence Intervention Program, which provides intense support services for victims of intentional violent injury, to enable them to make major life changes

Carnell's Family:
Wife: Danielle, married eight years; Kids: Twins Elisa and Elena, 5, Ella, 3

Carnell Lives In:
Baltimore, Maryland

Why Carnell Is Amazing:
Dr. Carnell Cooper, a trauma surgeon for 17 years, got tired of patching up wounded kids so they could go back to the mean streets of Baltimore to get fresh wounds.

But he remembers one kid in particular. He came to the University of Maryland Medical Center with gunshot wounds one night. Six months later, he was back. That time, the wounds were too severe.

Carnell watched him die. A nurse tried to comfort the doctor, telling him there's nothing he could have done. Some people just can't be helped.

He refused to accept that. Children are not born to be criminals, victims or both. "We expect people to behave like they're living on Main Street, but these are not easy circumstances to overcome," Carnell tells ParentDish.

"If you're going to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you first have to have boots," he says.

In 1998, Carnell created the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) at the hospital. He claims the hospital is the state's busiest trauma center for violent injuries. He also claims his is the first hospital-based anti-violence program in the country.

"We, as surgeons, become cynical at times," he says. "This program keeps me from being cynical."

VIP provides substance abuse counseling, job skills training and other support services to trauma victims. Carnell and his colleagues did a study four years ago that showed people in the program were six times less likely to be readmitted with a violent injury and three times less likely to be arrested for a violent crime. The kids he treats are good people, Carnell says. They only lack the light to show the way.

"They might not have had parents or grandparents who wanted them to succeed," he says.

Thankfully, Carnell did. Although his parents were only teenagers when he was born in 1955, he was raised by a grandmother in a small town in South Carolina. Life was tough, as racial segregation still ruled the South, but Carnell and his grandmother were tougher.

He got involved as a youth in an anti-poverty program called A Better Chance. "It was just like, wow, the opportunities were just incredible," he says. Through the program, he got to hang out with a surgeon. "That was the coolest thing ever," he says. "He had control over his life, he helped people."

Carnell attended Yale University and the Duke University School of Medicine. At first, he wanted to be a family practice physician and return to South Carolina. Ultimately, he was drawn to trauma surgery.

Now, 17 years later, he is still the civilian equivalent of a "MASH" surgeon -- sewing up the wounded as soon as they are brought in from a different kind of war.

"It's still fun," he says. "People think it's odd when I say that, but working in trauma, you take the opportunity to do what doctors do -- save lives."

That's also the reason he believes in VIP so much. "It allows our group to save lives again," he says.

Carnell wants his own daughters, 5-year-old twins Elisa and Elena and 3-year-old Ella to know how it feels to help others, to have empathy for the downtrodden.

But how can he do that when they are being raised in a level of comfort Carnell himself still finds it hard to believe he's achieved?

"I've been asking myself that question since they were born," he says. "I worry very much about teaching them the importance of giving."

He's started by taking his older daughters to work. "You have to show kids by being their guide," the devoted doctor explains.

For Carnell, empathy for his patients is not hard. They are the kind of poor, struggling people with whom he grew up in South Carolina. "These are folks from home."

Carnell's Patient Howard McCray Says:
"I'm a changed man. Dr. Cooper, he saved me."

Recognition: Honored by CNN as one its "2009 Heroes."

Carnell's Guilty Pleasure: Sneaking in a round of golf

Carnell's Best Advice: "Find that thing you really believe in, that gives you a reason to live and work on it."

Carnell's Wisdom: "My children are my core, my center."

Related: Amazing Dad: Gordon Hartman

Want to see who else made the list? Click here for the rest of AOL's 2010 Amazing Dads!

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.