NEPTUNE CITY — More than 45,000 people in the United States died by gunfire in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 14% increase over 2019.

Adding to the growing trend is another disturbing CDC statistic, that gun deaths among children 14 and younger jumped by 50% in the same time period.

At Jersey Shore University Medical Center, a Hackensack Meridian Health facility in Neptune City, Dr. Aakash Shah, who follows those numbers closely, sensed that not enough was being done to curb violence before it produced consequences.

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So in March 2021, he founded "Project HEAL," standing for Help, Empower, and Lead, which connects victims of violence with those who have been in their shoes, to find solutions and prevent situations from reoccurring.

'Hurt people hurt people'

The initiative is based on the insight, Shah said, that "hurt people hurt people."

"As an emergency room doctor, it was just extraordinarily difficult to be putting in stitches and then sending out a patient to circumstances that would all but cut them open again," Shah said, 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 plagues so many communities and that has spiked during this recent pandemic," he said.

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

On the other hand, if those victims are provided with mental health and substance use disorder treatment, educational opportunities, and/or job training and placement services, repeat offenses could be cut by as much as 30%, according to Shah.

'I think we can do right by you'

Instead of the strategy of "treat and release," then, Project HEAL encourages team members to "listen to, learn from, and ultimately change" the circumstances that bring a person to the hospital.

Shah said these become personal, and hopefully long-lasting, relationships.

"They exchange names, they exchange numbers, and say, 'Look, I'm here to help, I know what you're going through, and I think we can do right by you,'" he said.

'We've seen a woodwork effect'

Anecdotally, Shah even mentioned some clients who have been so transformed by their Project HEAL experience that they have endeavored to launch their own anti-violence nonprofits.

The program has been much more successful than even Shah himself anticipated. He thought his team might serve 80 or 90 people a year, but in about nine months, they have already provided help to more than 140 individuals.

"We've seen a woodwork effect, where the word has gotten out about the good work we're doing, and all of a sudden we're seeing more and more individuals who we can give the care and support that they need and deserve," Shah said.

If you or someone you know in Monmouth and Ocean counties has been the victim of a violent incident, go to Project HEAL's website or call 732-897-8190.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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