Inside a windowless room in the basement of the Philadelphia hospital that treats most of the city’s gunshot victims, the men in wheelchairs get to know one another.
Their stories are different in some ways. Jalil Frazier was shot last year while shielding three children from gunmen in a North Philadelphia barbershop. Leon Harris was a high school honors student when he was shot by robbers as he walked home from his job in 2007. And Tyrone Shoemake, shot over a girl nearly a quarter of a century ago, has been paralyzed for more than half his life.
Different circumstances. Different tragedies. But in one essential way, their stories are grimly similar: A bullet forever changed their lives.
It is right upstairs at Temple University Hospital where the trauma team fought to save Frazier’s life, a life as a working father of two that he is still trying to reclaim.
We are here because of Frazier. In May, after a Fill the Steps Against Gun Violence gathering, he told me that he had found the most comfort among other survivors who try to adjust to life after bullets took their ability to walk. I promised him that if a group for paralyzed survivors like him didn’t exist, I’d help him create one. Scott Charles, trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital, and Victoria Wylie, whose brother was gunned down in 2008 and who started her own anti-violence organization, helped me keep that promise.
After a short awkward silence Monday night, Shoemake took the lead.
He made the other four guys laugh. He encouraged them to join a wheelchair basketball league.
“Get out of the house," he said. "Get out of your heads.”
They were not on their own, Shoemake promised. He would help them.
“There’s always someone in a worse situation than you,” he said. “You have to be strong. You have to open up and talk. “
And for about two hours, that’s what the group did.
They talked about everything, about bodies scarred by bullets, the hunt for limited resources despite the city’s endless calls to stop the violence, and anger that sometimes proves harder to recover from than a gunshot wound.
“The hardest thing for me was to forgive the person that did this to me,” said Anthony Starks, 58. “Once I did that, my heart was free. It was extra ammunition for me to get my life back.”
They talked about sex and jobs and feeling alone — and lonely — when friends and family eventually return to their lives after the survivors’ bodies may have healed, but their minds haven’t.
“I ain’t got no friends,” Frazier confided.
“You have new friends here,” assured John Muldrow, another survivor.
The men seemed to take solace in their shared experience. So did the family members who accompanied them.
At one point in the night, when it seemed the meeting might have naturally come to an end, Tamira Brown, Frazier’s fiancé, nudged him.
“Really?” she said, her eyes fixed on him.
The men turned to her.
“He needs to talk," she said in a rush of words. "I can’t keep being his mouthpiece. There’s stuff that I can’t relate to … but y’all can.”
Frazier was quiet, but didn’t disagree. And yet, on this night, all he could focus on was the wheelchair that was falling apart under him. It was the right chair for him when he first got home from the rehabilitation hospital and didn’t venture out much past the living room of their Philly rowhouse. But now the family lived in a one-level house in New Jersey, and while every trip to Wawa with his boys or to the park to do pull-ups brought him closer to the life he wanted back, it also wore down the chair.
The company they got it from had come out to patch it up a few times, he said, but whatever they did clearly didn’t work. “Now I’m trying to accept my situation but I can’t accept this chair."
The group rallied behind him with ideas to fix it. One man offered him one of his old ones. Someone else offered a creative, if not altogether legit way, to get him another — and who could blame them when Medicaid will only provide a new chair in about five years or so.
He’d been deemed a hero when he protected those kids in the barbershop the night he was shot.
Is this how we treat our heroes? everyone wondered.