Ashlee Jaffe had a flight back to Philadelphia on the afternoon of July 4, with plans to return to work the next day. Before flying home, though, she wanted to make sure that her son could witness his first July 4 parade – an event she felt was an “iconic childhood experience,” despite feeling conflicted with the current state of the country.
Jaffe, a pediatric physiatrist and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine, was visiting her hometown of Northbrook, Ill., for the July 4 weekend with her five-year-old son, Caidyn, and her husband, Brian. Over the weekend before July 4 – her wedding anniversary – Jaffe had celebrated her father’s 70th birthday and met up with a childhood friend she had not seen in three years.
Once Jaffe found a nearby July 4 parade that they had time to attend – the parade in Highland Park, Ill., adjacent to Northbrook – she got pancakes for breakfast with her family and afterward sat down at a bench to watch the parade’s procession of wagons, strollers, veterans, and high school marching band performers decked in red, white, and blue.
Then, as the parade continued to move through downtown, Jaffe started hearing, “pop, pop, pop.”
“Almost just as quickly as I heard the noise, I actually felt pain and saw blood. I was shot in the hand,” she said, recalling the moments that she found herself wounded as a gunman fired a rifle upon the parade crowd from a nearby rooftop.
Jaffe, 39, was one of those shot in the July 4 Highland Park mass shooting, which left seven people dead and 46 others injured by gunfire or the subsequent panic. The shooting has had far-reaching impacts on the Penn community, among which are past residents of Highland Park and the adjacent suburbs.
Rising College and Wharton junior Sophie Draluck, who is from Highland Park, was working in Israel with other Highland Park residents when she started receiving text messages about an active shooter at the July 4 parade, an event that she went to every year growing up and called “a big staple” in the community.
As the reality of the shooting became clear, Draluck called her parents and brother and learned that her grandparents were in the parade, but had fled safely. She said she knows one of those wounded in the shooting and stressed Highland Park’s tight-knit community.
“The whole thing was so surreal, but it was super surreal to not be there,” Draluck said of being abroad while the shooting took place in her hometown. “It’s super devastating to see so many people that you know so heavily affected by such a tragedy.”
After the bullet struck Jaffe’s left hand, and as bullets continued to fly over her head, she quickly moved her son under the bench from which they were watching the parade moments prior. The crowd fled, and after what felt like hours to Jaffe, the gunfire ceased.
What remained in downtown Highland Park was an “eerily quiet” scene, which Jaffe called “ground zero of the death and injury of the shooting.”
Jaffe’s left hand was bleeding from the gunshot, requiring medical attention. Nonetheless, with her right hand placing pressure on her left hand, she attempted to help a more severely injured victim at the scene of the shooting by offering to call his family, who he had separated from amid the panic.
In the emergency room waiting room at NorthShore Highland Park Hospital, which quickly overflowed with patients, Jaffe instructed other gunshot victims to put pressure on their wounds with washcloths.
“I think my brain jumped into doctor mode a little,” Jaffe said, noting that she has seen gun violence victims, but being a rehabilitation medicine doctor, is usually one step removed from mass injury. “It was very hard to wrap my head around, ‘How can I help these other people and also make sure I’m taking care of my own injury at the same time?’”
Jaffe ultimately underwent surgery to clean out her left hand, which also required stitches and is still difficult for her to use. She has not yet returned to work at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia or the Medical School, where she sees patients and mentors Medical School students. Jaffe is also the director of a fellowship training program.
Many people who were near or at the parade when the shooting started, including rising College junior Hannah Houston's mother, hid in stores downtown for hours, until they were found by police and brought home. Houston said the shooting traumatized her mother, who is now hesitant to be in spaces with large crowds.
Jaffe, Draluck, and Houston expressed frustration with the widespread prevalence of mass shootings and gun violence across the United States – incidents that have touched both wealthier suburban communities like Highland Park and less wealthy areas of the country.
“Because Highland Park is an affluent community, that’s what caught everyone’s attention, at least in terms of a lot of Penn people talking and posting about it, who perhaps weren’t in other instances in Philadelphia or other places that are less affluent,” Draluck said, adding that it can be understandably difficult to process and internalize the reality of gun violence until being personally affected.
Philadelphia has seen over 300 homicides this year, of which approximately 90% were committed with firearms. On the same day as the Highland Park shooting, many Penn students were present at Philadelphia's Fourth of July fireworks show, where two police officers were hit by gunfire.
2022 Penn Law graduate Hannah Leibson, who is from Highland Park, echoed Draluck’s sentiments. She said that one of the lives lost in the shooting, Jacki Sundheim, was her preschool teacher.
“In so many articles, it truly brought me joy to see how much she was a pillar of our community,” Leibson said of Sundheim. “She was a light in Highland Park and an active member of the community, so it’s been particularly difficult to lose her knowing that she did lead an amazing life.”
As Highland Park attempts to heal, Leibson and Draluck said they were inspired by the level of resilience they observed as their town came together following the shooting. Houston, who said that Penn should publicly acknowledge the number of students impacted by the shooting, praised off-campus organization APES for organizing a GoFundMe that has raised nearly $3,000 for shooting victims and survivors, as well as local support networks in Highland Park.
"It shouldn't have to be your town to understand or to finally feel inclined to take action," Houston said, encouraging students to donate or advocate to their representatives for gun violence prevention legislation.
Leibson said that Penn as an institution has the ability to shape the conversation around gun violence. Within the University community, Leibson encouraged Penn to improve mental health services, host forums, and create more spaces for those impacted by gun violence to talk about their personal trauma in an actionable way. She said that there is a level of collective trauma among students and professors, no matter whether or not they belong to a community that has been impacted by gun violence.
"It's going to be challenging to have to keep going through this the next several months as patients are coming in with concerns, how to navigate that, and how to deal with the emotional trauma that clearly results from being injured in something like this," Jaffe said.