The living toll of guns: Broken bodies and minds

Updated
(L) Ryann Brown, who suffered serious injuries as a result of a shooting which also killed her friend, poses for a photo just a short time before the tragic...
(L) Ryann Brown, who suffered serious injuries as a result of a shooting which also killed her friend, poses for a photo just a short time before the tragic...

Ryann Brown doesn’t remember much from the night she was shot. Just a shadowy figure creeping up alongside the car that she and a couple friends were sitting in, then a shrill ringing in her ears.

She woke from a medically induced coma weeks later dressed in a hospital gown and a diaper. She couldn’t walk or talk. She couldn’t chew, swallow, or move the right side of her body. She couldn’t support her head and the thoughts inside of it were slow and muddled.

“I was like a newborn baby,” Brown recalled. “I wanted to die.”

Brown’s friend, who was sitting in the driver’s seat that cold night in March 2006, was shot dead and Brown suffered a bullet wound to her brain. Her friend’s younger brother, who was sitting in the backseat and was the only other witness to the shooting, would be shot and killed weeks later after talking to police about what he’d seen. Somebody put two bullets in the back of his head. He was 16.

Brown was all of 18 when she was shot, a bubbly, popular senior in high school just months away from her senior prom and graduation. By some stroke of grace she was alive, albeit with a metal plate in her head and her mind and body a jumbled mess.

This is what surviving gun violence often looks like.

While Chicago’s homicide rate and annual tally of murders has made the city notorious as one of America’s most violent cities, it is perhaps the thousands of non-fatal shootings each year that continue to leave the most lingering physical imprint of gun violence. Each year, more than a thousand Chicagoans—many of them children or teens—are wounded by gunfire, collateral damage in bloody skirmishes over gang turf and drugs, girls, or simple disagreements over nothing much at all.

Those who survive gunshot wounds often do so irreparably battered, suffering catastrophic physical trauma. The most violence-weary neighborhoods are pocked with broken bodies. Otherwise healthy young men and women use wheelchairs, many with bullets lodged in limbs. Some lose arms, legs, or control of their sexual organs and their bowels.

There is little reliable data on just how many people suffer catastrophic injuries from shootings each year or have sustained violently acquired brain or spinal cord injuries, but public health practitioners and doctors who treat these injuries lament the sheer volume of victims they are seeing with them.

“Most people don’t see the disability that comes with getting shot. They don’t see the big incision on your abdomen, convalescence, kids that are paralyzed who will never be able to move their arms or legs,” said Dr. Andrew Dennis, a trauma surgeon at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, one of the busiest trauma centers in the country.

“You can almost guarantee that we’ll see three or four shootings a night and on a weekend night I’ve seen as many as 20 people shot,” he said. “Do I have a couple that have stood out? Absolutely. I have four quadriplegics and one paraplegic in the trauma ICU right now, all secondary to being shot.”

But more than just the personal costs of gun violence, there’s a collective social and economic cost to shootings across the city that are deep and staggering, experts and analysts say.

Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said the resulting hospital stays, court cases and law enforcement costs related to gun violence, as well as indirect costs associated with residents and businesses fleeing the city out of fear, cost taxpayers an estimated $2.5 billion annually, or about $2,500 per household.

“Victims of shootings aren’t the only victims. We are all affected by it in different ways,” Ander said. “People get focused on the fact that gun violence is super concentrated, but I think for moral reasons we should be deeply concerned and try not to diminish the impact. We all bear the burden.”

A LONG, HARD HAUL

For Brown and countless other survivors of gun violence, surviving is just the beginning of an arduous road of physical and emotional recovery.

“We’re the casualties of violence,” said Wardell Kyles, who survived three separate shootings, the last of which left him paralyzed from the waist down. “We don’t all make it to a coffin. Those who don’t go to a coffin end up with us.”

The “us,” explained Kyles, who said he was paralyzed after being shot by Chicago police during a high speed chase in 1998, are the dozens of people he can count off the top of his head who’ve been shot and are now paralyzed or confined to a wheelchair.

“You never see a newspaper article that says, this person got shot and now he is in a wheelchair,” Kyles said. He said depression set in soon after he realized that he’d been paralyzed and that he thought at the time that it would be better if the doctors would just “unplug everything” and let him die.

Brown said she’s also battled depression and frustration with her newfound reality and the lack of physical independence and mobility that came with it. A regimen of medications and hospital visits are never ending. And her self-confidence was constantly being tested.

“Before the shooting I was very active,” said Brown. “After the shooting I was very closed off, very distant from people. I didn’t want people to see me like that. I thought I was ugly, I was fat. I lost my independence and I just didn’t like myself.”

The deep social circle Brown counted on before the shooting faded after. The phone stopped ringing. All but a few friends stopped visiting.

She had a loyal boyfriend who would make almost daily visits to the hospital, but she broke up with him at the hospital’s brain injury unit. “I didn’t want him to see me like that,” she said, “I just wanted to focus on myself, I was selfish, and I believe I had the right to be at the time.”

Trips to the mall or other public places that should’ve been a respite from her medical treatment and pain were uncomfortable affairs. Too many strange looks and stares at the girl in the big wheelchair and helmet.

“It’s been a long, hard haul,” said Kimberly Johnson, Brown’s mother. “She was a teenage girl who walked out of the house but came home on a gurney.”

Dr. Michelle Gittler, a physiatrist and expert on violently acquired spinal cord injuries at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago, said the tandem physical and emotional wounds suffered by people with debilitating injuries can be insurmountable.

 

“I think that one of the most challenging tasks for anyone is to believe in their self-worth. That challenge is even more daunting with a group of young men who’ve kind of been told by our society that you’re not worth much anyway,” she said. “I think if you look at a lot of people, particularly younger people, and you take away from them the ability to walk and control their poop and have sex and say, what do you think is wonderful about you, they would look at you blankly, like, you’re crazy.”

Gittler said gunshot victims are often seen as less sympathetic than say, people injured in motor vehicle accidents, and that broader social perceptions of the mostly minority, mostly poor victims of gun violence can run deep.

“There are people who are injured just because of where they live or who they are friends with. And some people have done bad things in their life. There’s a lot of regret, a lot of would’ve, should’ve ,could’ves,” she said. “But for everybody there’s this grieving process, the loss of their independence, they’re wondering if anyone would ever love them again, how they would fit back into society. We need people to believe that who they are just intrinsically is worth something.”

I HAVE TO LIVE WITH THIS VIOLENCE EVERYDAY

It’s not that Ryann Brown had ever been totally immune to gun violence. In Chicago it seems to lurk around every other corner, particularly on Chicago’s south and west sides, where the bulk of the city’s gun violence has erupted.

Just a couple weeks before being shot, Brown said she attended the funeral of a 20-year-old friend, whom she’d known since childhood. He’d been gunned down not far from where they attended grammar school together.

“I was in my own little world, getting ready for the prom and doing all my other stuff,” Brown said. “I just never thought it could happen to me.”

But in the seven years since her shooting, gun violence has struck home again and again.

The family’s barber, Charlie, was shot and killed in May 2007. He was killed within days of shaving Brown’s head for one of her four surgeries. In August 2010, Samuel Coleman, a 20-year-old neighbor who lived just two doors down from the family’s home on the far south side, Roseland neighborhood also known as “the Wild, Wild 100’s,” was found dead in the home with a gunshot wound to the neck. And twice, once in 2011 and 2012, a 15-year-old cousin was shot. He lived, but the bullets remain lodged in the teenager’s slender frame.

But it was the killing of Ryann’s older brother, Ricky, 30, in March that tugged at the very last, fragile emotional threads of her heart.

“I have to live with this violence every day,” Brown said. “My body reminds me of it every single day. And my brother getting killed was just, I thought me getting shot was the worst day of my life, but it wasn’t. My brother getting shot and killed was the worst day.”

Ricky was on his way to his job at the Post Office the night he was killed. Police arrested and charged the boyfriend of Brown’s older sister with the killing. Prosecutors allege that a dispute over an income tax return lead to Ricky Brown’s murder.

“I was so depressed,” Ryann Brown said. “I’ve gotten a whole lot better with my depression, but dealing with my brother, my dysfunctional family, it’s just stressing me.”

There still have been no arrests in Brown’s shooting and the killing of her friend Clifton Lowe, 20, who was in the car that night in 2006, Kim Johnson, Brown’s mother, said.

There had been a key suspect arrested within days of the shooting based on the testimony of Derrick Lowe, 16, Clifton’s younger brother who was uninjured during the shooting. But weeks into the investigation the police said Derrick was “flip-flopping” on his testimony, according to Johnson.

“They said he was no longer credible,” she said. Johnson said the police subsequently released the man they had in custody. Then on March 31, 2006, about three weeks after the shooting, Derrick Lowe was shot and killed.

The unsolved shooting is just one trickle in a wave of other shootings that go unsolved each year in Chicago, where police last summer suspended nearly 80% of their investigations into more than 1,100 nonfatal shootings during the first seven months of the year because victims wouldn’t cooperate, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“The bottom line is it’s frustrating…That no-snitch code that’s still out there,” Chief of Detectives Thomas Byrne told the Tribune. “Shootings are a precursor to a homicide.”

I’M A WARRIOR

When Ryann Brown finally returned home, the world as she’d known it had been completely flipped. She couldn’t do much moving around on her own. And the more of her mental dexterity she regained the more her new reality ate away at her spirit.

“I don’t think people understand, when we see a young person rolling around in a wheelchair just how messed up that is and how their life has been altered,” Kim Johnson said.

Brown said she began to quench her low spirits with junk food and even had a secret snack drawer packed with cookies, chips and other snacks, hidden in her room.

“Imagine coming home and having no independence. Imagine being 18-years-old and having to use a diaper,” Brown said. “I was in a deep depression.”

Her close family, including her mother and brother, Ricky, for years before his death, helped fuel Brown’s slow recovery. “She became my best friend,” Brown said of her mother.

Beyond the everyday hurdles of Brown’s disability, the family also struggled financially as Johnson split her time working at a methadone clinic and caring for her daughter. Eventually Johnson filed for bankruptcy under mounting debts.

Today, Brown, 25, continues to make strides in her recovery. Several months after her injuries Brown made it back to high school and graduated, attending graduation ceremonies in a wheelchair with a catheter and a diaper on beneath her robe.

And slowly she made even more progress. She started to walk again, though with a cane and with limited motion of her right side. With all of the adversity has also come extraordinary fortitude and faith. Brown is in her last semester at Richard J. Daley Community College where she’s studying business management and marketing.

“I’m strong,” she says, with a giggle. “I’m a warrior.”

But she also conceded that Chicago’s issues with violence and guns run deep, that the constant shootings haven’t let up since she was injured and that so many more after her have gone through the hurt and tumult that she’s experienced.

“I know it’s not going to stop until we as a community, as a black community come together and put an end to it,” she said. “The government can only do so much, and it starts with us.”

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The living toll of guns: Broken bodies and minds

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