Suzanne Groah, the doctor who heads the rehabilitation hospital’s Spinal Cord Injury Research program, says the lifetime cost of keeping the most severely injured spinal cord patients healthy can run into the millions. For patients who are less disabled, the cost can be up to half a million dollars.
Even with the best care, their life expectancy is shorter, with a bedsore possibly leading to surgery or a bladder infection to death. Just this year, a man rolled into one of the group meetings newly legless after developing an infection. No one in the room seemed shocked.
It isn’t clear how many people in the Washington region are confined to wheelchairs because of gun violence. Statistics on violently acquired spinal cord injuries aren’t kept in most places, either by local health departments or law enforcement agencies.
The District was one of just 20 places across the nation that provided detailed data between 2006 and 2011 to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Birmingham, Ala., which keeps the most extensive database in the country.
In a 2010 report from the center, provided to The Washington Post by the rehabilitation hospital, most places listed “vehicular accidents” as the No. 1 cause of spinal cord injuries. Only in the District did more people suffer spinal cord injuries from violence than car accidents, and the overwhelming majority were African American.
Gordon estimates that hundreds of men in the city have been confined to wheelchairs as a result of violence. He has seen more than 100 people, most of them gunshot victims and almost all of them black, rotate through the hospital’s voluntary support group since it was created more than two decades ago. Some come for a meeting or two while in the hospital. Others return year after year.
He and the hospital’s staffers have come to expect only one thing: There will always be a new member.
Uni, whose real name is Corie Davis, lies flat in bed with his chest exposed and a white towel draped over his lap. The fingers on his hands curl inward, uncooperative as he reaches for a bottle of Dove deodorant. Using his mouth as a cup holder, he secures the container between his lips and moves both hands in a clockwise motion to twist the contents upward.
Before his injury at 20, Uni could get dressed in minutes. Now 33 and a quadriplegic, the process takes time and requires the help of a government-financed aide who comes to his apartment in Northeast Washington daily.
He has no idea how much his care costs, just that Medicare and Medicaid pay for most of it. He says he stopped opening the bills long ago.