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Brain surgeon says traumatic injuries on the rise following border wall growth

Ciara Encinas reports on this story as a part of 10News' special 48 Hours on the Border coverage.
48 hours on the border -- wall height
Posted at 5:11 PM, Mar 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-13 21:52:30-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — The border wall stands 30 feet tall, but it didn’t always. The wall grew under the Trump administration, and now it’s a cause for concern for neurosurgeons who are seeing an uptick in migrants heading to the hospital with traumatic injuries.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of migrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

From Oct. 2023 to Jan. 2024, Border Patrol encountered more than 750,000 people across the southwest.

Agents saw more than 120,000 people in the San Diego sector alone during that time frame.

Migrants are crossing by any means possible: waiting at the port of entry, hiking through the desert and even climbing over the border wall.

“I can’t remember a week where we haven’t had an injury from a border wall incident for years and years," said Dr. Joseph Ciacci, a neurosurgeon at UC San Diego Health.

Dr. Joseph Ciacci has seen many migrants end up on his operating table after falling off the border wall.

The UC San Diego neurosurgeon has been tracking border wall falls for the past six years.

He calls each instance a tragedy.

"It’s particularly striking when you’re taking care of a severely injured patient that’s shackled to the gurney that they’re coming into the operating room on. It’s a visual that affects you," said Dr. Ciacci.

He’s seeing more and more.

He said in 2023, UCSD Health saw 500 head injuries from these kinds of incidents, with many patients needing surgery.

Another increasing trend is more women getting hurt.

"So, we're talking about 30 feet. That's a significant height to fall from. If you look at the structure of the wall, it was not designed in a way where climbing should be easy," said Dr. Ciacci.

In March, paramedics in San Diego County have already transported about 18 migrants to the hospital who fell from the border wall.

When the government nearly doubled the height of the border wall, the severity of injuries increased, and so did the cost of care.

Since 2020, it’s costing nearly $250,000 per patient to treat traumatic head injuries.

Dr. Ciacci explained that taxpayers are footing the bill.

"Clearly, there is a huge governmental expense that’s born by the local, state, county and federal government passed onto revenue from taxes and other things so all of us are paying for it," said Dr. Ciacci.

Traumatic injuries often mean extensive aftercare. Often, Dr. Ciacci doesn’t know who will make a full recovery.

"If they’re in-custody they will get care. That I can assure you. I just don’t know what happens when they go out of our sphere," said Dr. Ciacci.

He said one death is too many, but the reality is some will die despite surgery.

But, Dr. Ciacci does say migrants leave the hospital grateful.

"This is purely editorial, but I get a lot of sense of love for this country from a lot of these folks,” he said.

For him, that’s important because he is part of an immigrant family.

"My family came from Europe. I never saw a group of people who love this country more than that group of people from my parents' generation. They taught a love for this country, which is why almost everyone agrees that immigration is important and fundamental," said Dr. Ciacci.

He hopes that the data will help people think about what can be done to decrease the trend.

"No matter what side you take in a charged environment, especially in an election year, there’s a human side that we’re all on, and there’s a lot of suffering that’s going on," said Dr. Ciacci.

UCSD researchers are continuing to track this trend and are enlisting the help of Arizona and Texas researchers.