Several years ago I noticed what seemed like a tragic trend happening in Washington, D.C. I saw numerous young men riding around town in wheelchairs and guessed that most of them were not put there because of car accidents or disease, but because of violence. I wanted to find out if this was true, and if so, why? What is life like for these guys? Are there lessons that young people coming after these men can learn so they don’t end up in the chair as well? Is this situation getting better, or does the crime perpetuate in spite of development in the city? I pitched this story to a colleague, Theresa Vargas, while we were driving around town working on another assignment about a year ago, and she was immediately on board. She found a support group at a nearby rehabilitation hospital for men in wheelchairs re-adjusting to urban life. Soon after we started to go to weekly meetings with some of these men, most of whom are gunshot survivors. And almost six months later, we put together this project: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wheelchairs
Theresa wrote the searing story and I produced the video and shot the photographs for the newspaper and the photo gallery. We got great display in the Sunday newspaper and lots of online promotion.
This story took almost six months to report because of its sensitive nature and the intimacy that had to be captured. Building trust is not a simple task when you’re trying to show people in their weakest, most vulnerable states. These men shared private and painful memories with us, such as when Uni told us how hurt he was when his girlfriend left him after she found out he was paralyzed. Those sorts of disclosures require time and patience before they are given.
We also spent a lot of time going to their weekly support group meetings to gather a collection of conversations and to see how characters like Alfonzo, who was new to the group when we began reporting, dealt with his injury and changed over time.
In our reporting we learned that comprehensive records about non-fatal gunshot incidents are not really kept. Theresa wrote a sidebar story about this, including some of the data we do know about. For example, we know that almost all gunshot survivors with spinal cord injuries that end up at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital are African Americans. And the men in the Urban Re-entry Group are aware that this crime is mostly happening in their own communities. One of the discussions I had to cut out of the video but that was nonetheless interesting was the day the group talked about “black on black crime.” Dr. Gordon asked the men how many people they know who have been shot by white people (all the men admitted they know plenty of other guys who are gunshot victims). Uni replied by saying he could only think of Martin Luther King, Jr. None of the other guys could think of anyone else either. They then had a discussion about why they think black people are shooting each other. No one had any real answers.
Some of these survivors in the group were drug dealers when they were shot. Some kept dealing afterwards, too. Some owned illegally-obtained guns. Some of them provoked violence during fights. And some of them were working hard, just trying to get by, like Deonte.
We met Deonte near the end of our time reporting for this project. He was shot in September 2010 when he and some friends were shopping in a liquor store. He had just turned 21 weeks before. He didn’t know the shooter. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. The police report from the incident backs up his account. Deonte does not have a criminal record. He had a job. He says he was trying to live a standup life, in part because his brother was shot and killed in 1998 (Alfonzo’s brother was also fatally shot when he was a child). He knew he didn’t want to end up dead too. He didn’t want to put his family through all of the grief again. He’s a testament that this can happen to anyone.
Deonte went back to work after he was shot. He worked in a law firm, organizing files and delivering mail, until he developed a pressure sore from neglecting to do regular pressure reliefs on the job. Pressure sores can lead to bad infections and sometimes even amputation. Deonte’s sore put him back in the hospital for almost two months, which is why he returned to the support group.
There are so many details, like many of these about Deonte’s life, that I had to cut from the video. But as it is, I have tried to show an intimate portrait of what life is like for these men.
It’s a long video for the web; it’s 10 minutes. But I hope you watch it because I think it’s an important story. So often we hear about gunshot fatalities. It is rare to see the challenges that the survivors face. They’re the “in between” victims, as Dr. Gordon said. Many of them are completely cared for with American tax dollars through Medicare and Medicaid. These people live in our communities. Any one of us, in an instant of misfortune, could become one of them.
Most of the photographs in this blog post are not the ones that were published with the story, but are ones that I like nonetheless. Here are a few more:
Alfonzo, tired during therapy.
Alfonzo falls over during occupational therapy.
Alfonzo sips water during a physical therapy session.
Nurses lift Alfonzo from his bed into his wheelchair.
Alfonzo tries to open an envelope, which is a challenging task because of the limited mobility he has in his hands.
Deonte at home.
Ish on his front porch.
Ish reaches for his walker.
The tattoo on Ish’s right arm says, “God don’t make mistakes.” He says if he weren’t paralyzed, he thinks he would be dead or in jail.
Ish with friends and family on a Friday night.
Uni uses his mouth to twist his deodorant up.
Uni plays video games.
Uni’s aide helps him get ready for the day.
Uni cleaning his face.
Uni leaving his apartment building.
Kwame Dew, another regular attendee of the group.
Ish, Alfonzo and Uni pose for portraits.
Again, see the entire project at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wheelchairs