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CHICAGO – Derrick Owens was on his way home from work when a stranger with a gun walked up and shot him twice on July 27, 2005. He remembers that it was hot and it was also payday. He also recalls the shooting as the “worst pain I ever felt in my life.”
“It was so bad I couldn't make a sound,” Owens said. “It felt like hot lava, like my insides was burning.”
Owens, conscious during the entire ordeal, recalled lying on the street in a pool of blood before the ambulance arrived. He was rushed southwest of downtown to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, one of only two level-one trauma hospitals in the Chicago area.
Doctors confirmed what his sister, holding vigil in the waiting room, couldn’t bear to tell him: He was paralyzed from the waist down and would never walk again.
“I was 21. I felt like I was on top of my game. I was doing everything I wanted to do. I had everything that I wanted,” Owens said. “And from doing that to now being waited on hand and foot, it was like almost [being] a child again.”
When it comes to gun violence, homicides generally receive the most attention. But often overlooked are those who survive gunshot wounds and the long road of recovery, plus the enormous costs that go with it.
Gunshot wounds are the No. 3 cause of spinal cord injuries, primarily affecting young, uninsured men with the long-term health costs easily climbing into the millions, according to the National Spine Cord Injury Statistical Center.
All told, the talkative 30-something Owens said his medical bills reached nearly $10 million. The former mechanic for a bike rental company was uninsured at the time of his shooting, leaving the hospital to pick up the initial tab, with the remainder needing to be covered by his disability and Medicaid benefits.
“I was back and forth (from the hospital), on a lot of drugs, a lot of machinery,” Owens said. “I had lines in my arms, sent home with home health care nurses, so it was real expensive.”
James Doherty is director of the trauma center at the same hospital where Owens was taken. Crouched over a small workspace in the center of the emergency room, Doherty was going over the day’s log with the night supervisor when a gunshot victim was wheeled in.
He said the majority of people who are shot end up living.
“If you look at the numbers from Chicago, roughly one-fifth of the patients who are shot are homicides,” Doherty said. “But there's a large population of individuals who survive gunshot wounds. Beyond the injuries, they often end up with long-term consequences related to the gunshot wounds.”
“It's not uncommon for us to have a patient who has a total hospital bill for their acute inpatient hospitalization of over a million dollars,” Doherty said. “And in that situation, that patient has no insurance. Essentially, that's free charity care provided by the (Advocate Christ) hospital.”
That’s more than $1 million for the first year of medical bills alone. Added to that are court costs, mental health care and unemployment.
I felt like I was on top of my game. I was doing everything I wanted to do. I had everything that I wanted. And from doing that to now being waited on hand and foot, it was like almost [being] a child again.
The Pacific Institute For Research estimates annual firearm injuries end up costing $645 per gun in America. And Doherty said it’s not who you think that’s paying the price.
“There's a belief out there that all trauma patients somehow deserve – especially gunshot wound victims –being shot, that they're all gangbangers. That's really not true,” Doherty said. “(The) majority of our patients are not necessarily in gangs, and the shooting itself did not necessarily revolve around any gang-related incident. Very often in fact a majority of our patients are innocent victims.”
In May, 55-year-old Michael Brown was driving in Chicago’s northern suburbs, far from crime-ridden streets, when he heard the car glass crack.
“And then, it felt like someone had punched me in my left shoulder in the back,” Brown said. “But I knew it wasn't just a punch, because it knocked me over and I slumped over the wheel.”
In fact, a stray bullet had hit the father of two.
“I'm not a gang-banger; I'm not a thug…I'm a teacher,” he said while seated in the living room of his home converted to his bedroom. “And I'm thinking, ‘Well, why would someone want to shoot me?’”
For Brown, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A bullet came through the driver's side rear window, hitting his shoulder.
That bullet left Brown without the use of his arms or legs, changing his life.
“It's just changed completely,” he said. “My wife, of course, she was working full-time, and she had to leave her job. So it's affected me financially, as well. And it's affected her tremendously, because she and my sons and my niece are my primary caregivers. So it's affected all of their lives.”
Brown had taught high school math for 34 years and pastored for 17 years at the church he founded with his wife. Losing his place at the pulpit may prove to be his biggest cost of all.
“I don't know if I can put it in words,” he said, letting out a deep sigh as a tear began to roll down his cheek. “Ministry is my life…And to not be able to stand there and do what God has called me to do, it just, it's just, I can't describe it.”
But the sun shall shine again
It’s been nearly a decade since Owens was shot. He lives with his sister in the Englewood neighborhood on the city’s South Side. Although her modest home isn’t wheelchair accessible, Owens insists on doing most things himself.
Getting places is a challenge. He made his way down the front steps one at time backwards and holding the railing. He then rolled toward his sister’s SUV, pulling his body into the front seat and breaking down his chair, throwing it in the backseat.
He said he’s reminded of the all too familiar signs of the high cost of gun violence.
“I see a lot of guys in this neighborhood are in a wheelchair, especially in the Englewood neighborhood,” Owens said. “In, like, a three-block radius around here, I can give you, like, five different guys that are on wheelchairs – a victim of violent crimes.”
Owens, who lives on disability and receives Medicaid, volunteers for a program at Advocate Christ that connects trauma victims, and teaches them how to adjust to their new lives.
“I don't want nobody else to go through or feel the way I felt when I sat in the house for a while just looking out the window,” he said. “And it's good to talk to someone early and let them know so they can kind of be prepared for it, opposed to letting them go through the struggle on their own and let them feel like nobody's there with them to relate.”
Owens arrived at his friend’s house in hope of learning how to drive with his disability. He said his wheelchair and the neighborhood he hails from don’t define him.
“This is where I live. But that don't mean I'm product of my environment,” he said. “We not defined by this gun violence. None of us are.” He added: “We are experiencing it. But the sun shall shine again. It definitely will.”