Bending over a teenager, Dr. Eddie Cornwell stanched the blood spilling from gunshot wounds in the boy’s stomach. Six months earlier, around the time Cornwell joined the staff of Howard University’s College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., the same youngster had been treated for another gunshot wound to the stomach. Cornwell was certain the boy would survive this second attack, but he wasn’t so sure he wouldn’t see him again—like many of the other young men he had seen shot up over drugs, gang rivalries or petty differences. This case strengthened his resolve to continue to fight back. “I wanted to show kids that getting shot or stabbed isn’t glamorous or anything like what’s presented by Hollywood,” he says. If he didn’t try to do something, he adds, “I’d simply feel like a medic in an unwinnable war.”
For the past decade, first in D.C., then in Los Angeles, where he worked for five years, and now in Baltimore, Cornwell, 43, has created a beachhead of sorts against inner-city violence. As chief of adult trauma surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Cornwell employs a tough-love approach, meeting periodically at the Ft. Worthington Police Athletic League Community Center with up to 50 local youths, snapping them to attention with slides of gory bullet and knife wounds. When he has time, he also hosts “Rap with Doc” sessions at the center, where adolescent boys can ask him personal questions they might be afraid to discuss with parents or teachers. And at times he arranges visits to the hospital, where his young charges meet victims of violence in person. “It’s kind of scary, but it’s a reality check,” says high school freshman Brandon Long, 14, recalling the sight of a bedridden victim with a still-oozing belly wound. “You could really feel the pain in his voice. That’s what scared me the most.”
Cornwell’s violence prevention strategies were given a national audience this past month as part of the well-received six-part ABC medical documentary Hopkins 24/7. The brainchild of Phyllis McGrady, senior vice president of ABC News, the program profiled several doctors, even gaining access to their Morbidity and Mortality meeting, where mistakes are discussed. “Virtually all the doctors and patients were just incredible,” says McGrady. Of Corn-well, she adds, “He obviously feels very strongly about giving back to the community.”
Cornwell’s altruism was nurtured while he was growing up in D.C., one of six children of surgeon Edward E. Cornwell Jr., who died of pancreatic cancer in 1984, and his wife, Shirley, now 73, a homemaker who later worked as a high school teacher and a real estate agent. Charity was a family tradition expressed around such holidays as Christmas, when, says Shirley, “I’d try to find a family with the same number of children so the kids could each pick out and wrap a gift for one of the children in the other family.”
Academic and professional expectations were also high. The family produced another surgeon, Michael, 32; two successful business executives, Terry, 45, and Brenda, 42; and two attorneys, Patricia, 47, and David, 39. At the elite Sidwell Friends School, Eddie played football, basketball and baseball before heading off to Brown University and later graduating as class president of Howard’s College of Medicine. “He’s always been very balanced,” says sister Terry. “What you see is what you get.”
Cornwell’s wife, Maggie, 43, a family physician who is a niece of Children’s Defense Fund founder and president Marian Wright Edelman, knew exactly what she was getting when he proposed in 1988. The pair were friends at Sidwell and had kept in touch for a short time after graduation. In 1987 they bumped into each other in Baltimore. They wed just two years later. After unsuccessful attempts to conceive, they are in the process of adopting a 3-year-old boy named Michael.
When not cuddling Michael or cheering on his beloved Washington Redskins, Cornwell often spends his free time at the PAL community center. “Sometimes you can tell from his eyes that he’s been up for days and really wants to go home to his family and go to sleep,” says student Brandon Long. “But he will smile and say, ‘Oh, I’m all right.’ ” Cornwell shrugs off the praise. “The hero stuff is for other people,” he says. “I’m trying to do my part to be a role model.”
Vanee M. Vines in Baltimore