“What happened to you?”
“I got shot, man.”
“How old are you?”
“Just turned 26.”
In a strained whisper, he explains how one minute he was driving to get pizza in Southeast Washington and the next he was lying in a hospital, paralyzed. The other men, who all sit in wheelchairs, nod. They know where he’s been and, more important, where he’s headed.
“I got shot in ’99, before Y2K,” says a heavyset man with neat shoulder-length dreadlocks whom everyone calls Uni, short for Universal.
“Today, this is my 14th anniversary,” offers a lanky man with a wide, easy smile who is known as Ish. “I was completely paralyzed. Was you on the machine?”
“Yeah,” Alfonzo says. “They thought I wasn’t going to be able to breathe without a ventilator.”
“But Alfonzo, I want to ask you a question,” says Samuel Gordon, the clinical psychologist who wheeled him in. “How come you’re smiling?”
“ ’Cause why not?” he replies. “My doctors told me, they said I was gone. They said, ‘I’m gonna be real with you. We did everything we could do for you.’ So with that said, what is there to be angry about?”
When a shooting occurs in the District, the public hears about the dead. Funerals are held. Facebook in-memoriam pages are created. RIP T-shirts are worn. But each Tuesday afternoon in a basement-level auditorium at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest Washington gather those who did not die. They are the survivors — men who know firsthand how gun violence disproportionately affects young black males and how even when a person lives, he often doesn’t walk away.
On the March afternoon that Alfonzo shows up, the men in this support group warn him of the ways his body will change: His feet will swell too large to fit into his old shoes, spasms will grip his otherwise limp legs, sex as he once knew it might not be possible. What they don’t say — what he will have to learn on his own, just as they did — is how his injury will change the way he sees everything. How a good day now might mean opening a bottle of soda without help, or dialing a phone number on the first try, or putting a gun to his head and not pulling the trigger.
The Urban Re-Entry Group, the official name for the weekly gatherings, provides a searing view into Washington’s street violence and costly aftermath.
Most D.C. residents who survive traumatic spinal cord injuries will end up at the rehabilitation hospital, where they might spend months relearning how to feed themselves, write their names and get dressed on their own. But unlike the middle-class patients who arrive after car accidents or vacation mishaps, many of the men who pass through the group come with criminal records, limited education and spotty work histories, meaning they were struggling before a bullet further sliced their chances for success.