A bullet from out of the blue; a life saved at Children’s


In 1987, when she was 14, Tanessa Starnes was struck by a random bullet which damaged her heart and lungs. Her life was saved at Children's National Medical Center. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist January 1, 2013

After Tanessa Starnes was shot it was painful and awkward for everyone involved.

It was most painful for Tanessa, of course. A random bullet had pierced the 14-year-old’s chest as she stood outside a D.C. swimming pool on June 2, 1987.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

It was awkward for the boy who had shot her, one of three teens riding by on two mopeds.

“I met one of them,” Tanessa, now 40, told me recently. “He used to hang around in my neighborhood. The guys around my neighborhood were telling him, ‘You can’t be around here if you’re not gonna talk to her.’ He just came to me one day and he was like, ‘The guy that was on the scooter that did this, he was not supposed to shoot the gun. He was just supposed to scare the guy.’ ”

And it was awkward for the boy they’d meant to shoot, or at least to scare.


This 1987 photo that shows Tanessa Starnes, a then-14-year-old D.C. girl who was shot outside a swimming pool that year. (Courtesy of Children's National Medical Center)

“We went to the same school,” Tanessa said. “He would see me and walk the other way. I told him: ‘I don’t have any animosity for you. Just because this bullet was meant for you and it hit me it doesn’t make any difference.’

“I’m a churchgoing person. I forgave him.”

Tanessa was shot more than 25 years ago. It would be nice if I could say children were no longer getting shot in Washington. Of course, that’s not the case. And often, those children are taken where Tanessa was taken: to Children’s National Medical Center.

She has random memories of the day she almost died. The trip to the pool had been a reward for being on the winning team in the city’s double-dutch jump-roping competition. She was wearing a purple bathing suit under acid-washed jeans. She hadn’t actually been in the pool yet.

At Children’s, there wasn’t time to anesthetize her. Trauma surgeon Kurt Newman opened her chest and then performed that most intimate of lifesaving acts: He put his hands on Tanessa’s heart, first squeezing it, then using his fingers to plug the holes, while another surgeon stitched them shut. Then they closed holes in her lungs.

Tanessa should not have lived. She was called the “miracle child.” During her two weeks in the hospital, she received cards and letters from strangers all over the world, people horrified that an innocent child could be injured in such a senseless act of random violence. The bullet stayed inside her for months, just under the skin in her back, until it worked its way to the surface and was removed in an outpatient operation at Children’s.

Today, Tanessa lives with daughters Shontaney, 17, and Erikah, 8, in Anacostia. Occasionally, when she hears a gunshot, and too often there are gunshots, she will clutch her chest.

“My 17-year-old, she knows what happened to me,” Tanessa said. “We talked about it when she got older. She cried. I cried. This is why I tell her: ‘You have to be aware of your surroundings. You’re older now. You need to know these things.’ ”

Tanessa’s random shooting was the result of a fistfight that got out of hand. She tells her daughters to run away from fights. Sometimes her teenager tells her she’s too strict.

“I’m not really strict,” she answers. “I need to know where you are. If you leave school, I need to know where you’re going. If something happens to you, I need to know what to tell the police.”

Tanessa works an administrative assistant for a government contractor near L’Enfant Plaza. Dr. Newman, the surgeon who held her heart in his hands, is the chief executive of Children’s.

And just last month, a bullet grazed the face of 23-month-old Kodi “Cocoa” Brown when her father shot and killed her mother, Selina Brown.

Wouldn’t it be nice if kids didn’t get shot? If kids didn’t get injured in car crashes? If they didn’t have cancer and weren’t born with life-threatening illnesses?

Maybe that will happen some day. For now, we need Children’s National Medical Center. And because Children’s treats all patients, regardless of their ability to pay, it needs your support. There are just three days left in this year’s Washington Post fundraising campaign. A tax-deductible gift of any amount will help ensure that the Tanessas of the future can receive lifesaving care.

Please go to www.childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or send a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

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