Joseph Sakran was 17 and celebrating his high school football team’s first game of the 1994 season when he found himself on the ground choking on his own blood.
At a park in Burke, Virginia, a gang member fired shots into the crowd — hitting Sakran in the throat. He remembers flashes of gunfire, his blood-soaked white T-shirt and people fleeing before he was rushed by ambulance to the hospital.
“I felt like it was in slow motion,” Sakran, now 40, tells PEOPLE. “I could tell that there was something wrong, but I didn’t know 100 percent what that thing was.”
The .38-caliber bullet severed an artery in his neck, paralyzed a vocal chord and ruptured his trachea. During his lengthy recovery — and multiple surgeries, including a tracheotomy so he could speak and breathe — Sakran resolved that he would do something important with his life.
“After this happened, I kept saying to myself, ‘God has given me this second chance,’ ” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to waste it.”
And he hasn’t. Now a trauma surgeon and director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Sakran saves the lives of hundreds of gunshot victims who “underwent the same type of thing that I had.”
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“When I go out to the waiting rooms and talk to victims of family members, I sometimes think what my parents were going through at the time,” he says. “When I see the faces, I think back to my parents and what they were feeling and what they were going through.”
But Sakran isn’t just working to help heal people from gun violence. He wants to end it altogether.
“I want to fix this problem before they ever get to the trauma center and before I ever have to take them to the operating room,” he says.
Sakran, who founded Doctors For Hillary — a grassroots movement supporting Clinton’s presidential bid and gun control platform — travels across the country advocating for expanding universal background checks, closing loopholes that allow people with criminal records to acquire guns and increasing federal funding for firearm-related research, so “we can actually minimize the number of deaths.”
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The majority of firearm deaths are from suicides — a fact that Sakran says has been overlooked for too long.
Through his work at Johns Hopkins, and using data culled from the Maryland medical examiner, Sakran also plans to study why gun injuries have become more lethal as, he says, shooters increasingly aim to kill and choose weapons that do the most damage to their victims.
On a plate on his desk at home, Sakran says he keeps the bullet that pierced his neck 23 years ago.
“I’ll look at it and I’ll think, ‘This nearly ended my life,’ ” he says. “But now, this has been the inspiration for what I do.”