“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.
When they leave the hospital, it is for neighborhoods where men in wheelchairs are a common sight and physical weakness can make them targets.
Those who carry criminal pasts will have to decide whether to continue breaking laws and hanging on to dangerous friendships. Many will spend the rest of their lives dependent on government assistance for their array of prescriptions, endless doctor appointments and expensive wheelchairs, ramps and hospital-grade beds.
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.
“Marie!” he yells, summoning his aide, a stout woman with a pronounced Haitian accent, into his room. She hands him a white T-shirt and pulls up his socks. With measured movements, he wiggles into his jeans, but she clasps them closed and adjusts them over his diaper.
“Accidents do happen,” he says. “It’s embarrassing, but it is what it is.”
Uni is the most outspoken in the support group, coming off at times like a well-seasoned doctor. One day he notices a group member’s swollen ankle and tells him to elevate it. Another day, he makes a man lift his arms to determine whether he has a c6 or c7 injury. It’s not unusual for him to use the words “dawg” and “autonomic dysreflexia” in the same breath.
Listening to him, it’s easy to imagine Uni sitting in a college classroom or occupying an office with framed diplomas on the wall. Instead, he spends most of his days in a one-bedroom subsidized apartment in a building where the elevator door takes a few poundings to close and a man was recently shot in the head.
Still, it beats the alternative. After leaving the hospital, Uni spent eight years in a red-brick Hyattsville nursing home, one of 10 young men in wheelchairs sharing a communal bathroom and dining room with residents more than three times their age, some mentally gone and others on their way. There, nurses walked the white-linoleum halls in soft-soled shoes, and signs alerted residents who can’t leave the building that “The month is . . . The year is . . . The weather is . . . .”
In his apartment, Uni has a kitchen where he can make pancakes when he wants and a living room big enough to watch a boxing match with friends. Here, he has his own bathroom where everything sits within arm’s reach and his own bedroom where he can leave the television tuned to ESPN. And he does, except for when he plays video games, which he controls with his mouth, or watches “The Young and the Restless,” which he has followed since he was 8, when he moved in with his grandparents after his mother’s death from a drug overdose.
Uni could easily blame where he is on the failings of others — his mother’s addiction, his father’s abandonment — but he doesn’t. When Gordon asks the group where their lives took a turn, Uni says that throughout middle school he was in classrooms designated for the smartest students. He even played the flute in the marching band.
“And what happened?” Gordon asks.
“I went to Cardozo, that’s what happened,” Uni says. “Once you get to high school, it’s totally different because you gotta deal with older students, you gotta deal with other crews.”
He was charged as a teenager with driving a stolen vehicle, which he admits he did, and armed robbery, a charge he says was wrongly pinned on him and friends who were sitting on the steps of a recreation center more than half a mile away when the crime was committed. The latter juvenile charge was dismissed, he says, and his adult record shows he was found not guilty of a charge of marijuana possession.
But then there was the fighting. It got him suspended on the second day of his junior year. It’s also how he later met Ish, now 32, whose real name is Ismail Watkins and who was a student at the school. As both men tell it, one of Uni’s friends stole a truck belonging to one of Ish’s friend’s, sparking animosity that led to blows between the two groups in the hallway.
As their friends’ fists flailed around them, neither teenager had a clue how connected they would soon become. How more than a decade later, they would sit across a table from each other, brothers by circumstance, finding support that can come only from someone whose future had also been cut short by a bullet.
It was Ish who was shot first.
He was an 18-year-old senior, the father of a newborn baby boy and, by his own admission, a drug dealer when he found himself lying on a stoop, choking on his blood.
The 14-year-old police report about the incident no longer exists. But Ish says a man looking to rob him approached him and a friend from behind, said “Give it up,” and fired several shots. One grazed Ish’s head. Another ripped through his neck.
When he woke up in the hospital, a metal brace locked his head in place and a ventilator helped him breathe. He had lain there for weeks, helpless, when he overheard the doctor tell his mother what he hadn’t yet realized: He was paralyzed.
I’m going to be a vegetable, he thought as he sobbed.
At one point he confessed to a nurse, “I don’t want to live like this.”
He wanted to be able to lift his son again, and ride a bike, and walk out of the house without a care. Instead, he returned home in an electric wheelchair, which he used to leave his house only for doctor appointments and group therapy sessions. He earned his diploma from Cardozo, but he didn’t walk across the stage or attend prom.
He was more than a year into his therapy at the rehabilitation hospital, working four times a week on strengthening his arms so that he could feed himself, when he saw a familiar, if not always friendly, face.
Uni had been in a basement of a house in August 1999 when his friends ran in to tell him a rival group of men were in a nearby alley, flashing guns.
He made a move he now calls “stupid.” He grabbed a T-shirt filled with bricks. When the fight began, he focused on one man and swung the homemade weapon into his face. He began to swing again when he heard the gunshot. He fell to the ground, numb, unable to move as a woman held his head and instructed him to “Breathe, breathe. Don’t close your eyes.”
Uni asked a friend to tell everyone he loved them and, with that, he let his lids fall.
When he woke up at Howard University Hospital that night, an itch on his nose was the first sign that he was paralyzed. He tried to scratch it, and his arm refused to move. He screamed.
Gradually, some sensation returned to his arms, bringing with it excruciating pain. But what hurt more, he says, is that his girlfriend of three years left him after a doctor told her he likely would never walk again.
“I still had hope,” he recalls, “but when my girl left me, I lost all of that.”
When Uni saw Ish that day at the rehabilitation hospital, neither mentioned the past. They were no longer teenagers fueled by a sense of invincibility. They were young men who, for the first time, had to face their bodies’ vulnerabilities. That day, Ish simply rolled up to Uni and said, “You’re gonna be all right.”
Thirteen years later, they sit at opposite ends of the faux wood table, presiding over the group meetings with their been-there-conquered-that commentary.
When Uni and Ish began attending the weekly gatherings more than a decade ago, there were maybe 20 men who joined them. Now any combination of a dozen men — sometimes boys — will show.
One week, a gray-haired man describes how his best friend shot him. “We’d been together for 30 years and he put a bullet into me,” he says. “So I don’t have no trust.” Another week, a 17-year-old tells the group that he was riding his bike in Barry Farm and listening to his iPod when two men walked by him and started shooting.
Ish doesn’t always join in the discussion, but when he does, it’s usually to impart some insight tinged with optimism. Uni, on the other hand, speaks with the unfiltered, hard-eyed air of a man who has had to advocate for himself.
One afternoon in May, the men in the group discuss the dangers of allowing a wife or girlfriend to serve as a caretaker. Someone says a man should know how to put on his own pants.
“You hear that?” Uni says, looking at Alfonzo, who is five months into his recovery and living with a woman he will soon marry. Alfonzo often confides in the group about how much she helps him — even wipes his behind, he says.
“You hear that, Zo?” Uni demands. “Hey, Zo, listen to me.”
The day might come when she gets angry, walks out the door, and then what? No woman, and no pants.
“That’s what I’m trying to prepare him for,” Uni says. “That’s what you’re in therapy for.”
“You saying that, right?” Alfonzo says to Uni. “How you going to get in your chair?”
“I can get in my chair.”
“You get out of your bed into your chair at home?”
“Yeah, I can get in and out. I can put my own clothes on, dawg. That’s why I’m not in the nursing home no more.”
Alfonzo rolls his eyes in surrender: “You bad.”
“You have to learn that though,” another man says. “It’s hard, but you have to learn.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Uni says. “You’re stronger than me, dawg.”
Alfonzo shows up at the hospital for outpatient therapy a week after his wedding in June. His first task seems simple: Move from his chair onto an elevated blue exercise mat.
A female physical therapy student half his size holds on to him as Alfonzo uses a strap to lift his legs and twists his body, little by little, toward the edge of the chair.
“One, two, three,” he counts, shifting an inch.
“One, two, three.” Another inch.
He counts at least five more times, moving maybe five more inches. When he makes it to the edge, his breathing is audible and his body slumps forward like an unmanned marionette. Only a small gap separates his backside from the exercise mat, but to get there, he must scoot along what looks like a wooden cutting board.
“One, two, three,” he starts again.
Alfonzo was a standout football player at Anacostia High School. In 2003, he was the team captain when a 16-year-old teammate was gunned down, and their coach was left to mourn the 20th player he’d seen shot, and the fourth killed, during his career.
Alfonzo was dealing drugs back then, he tells the group, but regrets it.
“I ain’t even going to lie to y’all,” he says. “If I could do it over again, I’d go to school and play football.”
His high school record earned him a football scholarship to a Texas college, but he let his grades slide and came home within a year.
Back in D.C., he eventually took a job as a dump truck driver and was earning nearly $20 an hour when he was shot three days before Christmas. He knows he was driving to Mario’s Pizza that night, but he says he can’t recall anything after that — not the gunman’s face, not the feel of the bullet burrowing through his neck, not the pain as he drove to a nearby gas station and collapsed.
An officer in the area heard the gunshots and saw the shooter running away, according to a police report that lists the case as “assault with intent to kill.” Police found two bullet fragments at the scene and canvassed the area, but did not find the shooter.
Alfonzo’s mother, Lessie Mahoney, was shopping with her daughter when the call came saying that the youngest of her four children had been shot.
Not another son, she thought.
When Alfonzo was 7, his 14-year-old brother, Jesse, was shot in the back and killed.
For two years, Lessie would find herself at her clerical assistant job, on her lunch break, crying.
“After Jesse got shot, then I used to worry about Alfonzo,” she recalls. “I used to say, ‘Oh Lord, I hope nothing don’t happen to him.’ These streets are no joke out here. These people shoot to shoot, and sometimes you don’t even have to do nothing.”
When she saw Alfonzo in the hospital, his body was so swollen she didn’t recognize him.
“That’s not my son,” she said. But it was, and in the months since, she has watched as he has slowly regained strength and leaned increasingly on his faith.
Before the shooting, Alfonzo could bench-press 315 pounds; after, he would struggle to lift 35 pounds during therapy. It would take him months to learn how to brush his teeth with two hands, feed himself with a special utensil and write using a ballpoint pen strapped to his palm.
From the beginning, doctors described him as a model patient, a “sweetheart.” As he sat outside the hospital a few months after his injury, a bullet still lodged in his back, he smiled: “I haven’t had a breakdown moment yet, to be honest. I had a moment when I cried from joy, just realizing I’m making it through this.” But two weeks after leaving the hospital, he finds himself alone in his seventh-floor apartment. His aide is late. For a short time, he worked as a firefighter in Loudoun County, so his mind races through every worst-case scenario. One thought in particular gnaws at him: “What if a fire breaks loose in the building and I’m just sitting here? And they don’t hear me yelling because I can’t scream that loud?”
The darkness creeps up on him some days, unexpectedly. He is by nature upbeat, giving in to gummy bear cravings and letting the simplest of jokes send him into fits of raspy laughter. But at times, the enormity of his situation slithers up and swallows him whole.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Alfonzo says one afternoon to the group. “I told my wife . . . I said, ‘If I was like some of the guys I know, I’d be like gone.”
He doesn’t have to explain what he means.
“You be in that bed, right, and you ain’t got no strong will power, you’ll raise that gun to your [expletive] head,” one man says.
“But if you put that hammer to your head, do you have the will to pull that trigger?” Uni asks.
“Most people who commit suicide is retarded, crazy or just stupid.”
“Hold up, hold up, hold up,” Alfonzo says. “You can’t say that though. . . . Before this, man, I did everything like drove trucks, played ball . . .”
“You ever put a hammer to your head and pulled the trigger?” Uni asks.
“Alright then,” Uni says. “Don’t get me wrong, I put a hammer to my head before, but I never pulled that trigger.”
“But you don’t know how far you might go one day,” the other man says.
A black-and-white photograph sits on the floor of Uni’s room. It shows him clad in a basketball jersey, crouched and ready to pounce in the middle of a high school game.
“Wish I could do that now,” he says.
In the same room, on a TV stand, sits a line of pill containers. Uni takes seven medications, three times a day.
He also does a “bowel program” every other day, which involves taking suppositories and waiting for his system to clean itself out. “People don’t understand [what] you have to go through on a day in and day out basis,” Uni says.
They don’t understand that he can’t travel far without worrying how much battery power he has left in his electric chair. Or that he has to chug water constantly to prevent a bladder infection. Or that he can’t just go to an appointment, he has to wait for a van to pick him up. They don’t understand that even if he could find a job, it would be difficult to keep it.
He has given up setting goals.
“I can’t live my life for the future anymore,” Uni says. “I have to live my life for the present.”
For Uni, the past 13 years have been about survival, about avoiding the illnesses he has seen claim other men in the group.
For Ish, the past 14 years have been about hope, about taking literal, albeit slow, steps forward.
Ish had been in his chair for about a year when he detected a small twitch in his leg while in the pool. After that, his physical therapists tried to get him to repeat it out of the water, but he couldn’t. Then, several months later, on the day of his grandmother’s funeral, as he sat in a car outside the church, a woman playfully reached for his shoe. He jerked it away.
Four years later, a physical therapist put a brace on Ish’s right leg, which was weaker than his left, told him to hold on to parallel bars and watched as he took his first unsteady steps.
“That was a good moment,” Ish says. “I didn’t let anyone know, but I was really happy inside.”
Nowadays, there are times when Ish moves as if to stand or grab an object off the floor before realizing he still cannot fully control his body. He lacks feeling in his left arm and hasn’t regained full strength in his right one. He also requires multiple Botox shots in his legs to keep the spasms under control.
At his mother’s home in Southeast, where he lives, he can toss his clothes into the washer, but he has to wait for someone to turn the knob. If this frustrates him, he doesn’t show it. He doesn’t believe in dwelling on his limitations.
Tattooed on the inside of his right forearm are the words: “God Don’t Make Mistakes.”
“He don’t,” Ish says. “Everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t in the chair. I’d probably have 100 years in jail. I’d probably be forgotten.”
In the months before he was shot, Ish landed in jail twice — once for selling marijuana to an undercover officer and another time for carrying an unlicensed firearm. A criminal record check shows both charges were dismissed. In 2007, he was arrested again when he says police stormed his house and found drugs and guns in the ceiling. It didn’t matter that he was in a wheelchair. He spent several days in jail. Eventually, the case was dropped.
Ish had sold drugs since he was 12 and noticed the older boys in the neighborhood bringing in enough money to buy clothes and food his family couldn’t afford. But he says the arrest five years ago marked his last day in the business.
“I don’t want to be out there doing stupid stuff or worrying that I need a gun,” he says.
Sometimes, he sits in his room, thinking of the dozens of friends he’s lost to jail or death. He says he can count 50 men who wound up in wheelchairs. He reels off names: Jamal, Jordon, Bill, Fats, Kareem, JB, Shawn, Gerald and his younger cousin, Rodney, who was shot two years ago.
Ish still attends each group session in a wheelchair, mostly so he doesn’t exhaust himself. But one afternoon in the lobby, as he prepares to leave, he transfers to his walker.
As he leans on it, his left sneaker rests comfortably against the shiny floor, but his right leg is twisted inward so that only his toes touch the ground. With each step, his right leg shakes vigorously, sending vibrations up his faded jeans, through his gray polo shirt and to the large silver cross that dangles around his neck. Ish looks straight ahead and flashes a grin, wide and proud.
“There’s a word called resilience,” Gordon says. “You know what that means?”
Uni takes a stab at it but gives the definition of “restraint” instead. “Basically holding back.”
“No, it’s just the opposite,” Gordon corrects. “Resilience says that you bounce back, that you have strength, that somehow despite all the adversities you face, you keep pushing forward. And that’s what y’all have.”
In the more than two decades that the psychologist from the South Bronx has headed the group, he has witnessed the highs and lows of these men.
He has attended their weddings and their funerals. He has watched one patient get a master’s degree in psychology and another give himself five years to live. He has seen Uni and Ish grow up and let their outer toughness evolve into an inner strength.
For the most part, Gordon allows the men to set the agenda for the meetings, but he often nudges them to analyze their circumstances. One day he plops a set of speakers on the table. Soon, Curtis Mayfield’s “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” glides through the room. Gordon implores the men to listen — really listen — to lyrics that describe black men killing one another. The song ends:
Pardon me, brother, I know we’ve come a long, long way
But let us not be so satisfied for tomorrow can be
An even brighter day
“Uni doesn’t believe that last part: tomorrow can be a brighter day,” Gordon says. “What Uni is saying is that killing and that stuff is not going to stop.”
“It ain’t gonna stop,” Alfonzo agrees.
“Can it get better?” Gordon asks.
“No,” Alfonzo says. “My brother got killed in ’92. Here it is 2000-something and look, I’m in a wheelchair, paralyzed.”
“Yeah, it can get better,” Ish says.
“It can get better,” Gordon says. “But has it gotten better?”
“A little bit,” Ish says.
“No,” Alfonzo says, citing the 2010 South Capitol Street shooting that left four dead and six injured. “That was vicious. Man, it ain’t getting better.”
Alfonzo is bragging about how he picked up a pillow from the floor without his wife’s help when Gordon arrives on a June afternoon, pushing a wheelchair. In it sits a skinny young man draped in a blanket from the neck down. A metal brace locks his head in place, and he speaks in the same squeak that Alfonzo once did.
As the 21-year-old explains what happened to him — how a month earlier a .38 caliber bullet entered his neck and came out his back — Alfonzo watches his movements closely. More than three months have passed since he sat in the same position.
“Hey, you can ball your fists up and everything?” Alfonzo says. “That’s good. ’Cause when I got shot, I couldn’t do nothing. Sometimes I feel like I ain’t even got no hands.”
“Hey, I told you, dawg, don’t do that,” Uni says. “Don’t even bring yourself to the point where you think you can’t do this and can’t do that. Don’t even put ‘can’t’ in your vocabulary.”
“Yeah, you’ll get depressed,” another man says.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” Uni says. “Everybody goes through a depression stage. Throughout a period of a day or something like that, you might a couple of minutes think about, ‘Damn, what if I could do this.’ But then you come back to reality.”
The young man says he’s not feeling depressed. He’s aware of the alternative.
“I think the most important thing that we don’t realize with our injuries is that we’re still here,” he says. “We’re still alive.”
The other men in the group nod, even though there is the sense that he is talking more to himself than to them. They already know that. They also know what comes next.
Madonna Lebling, Jennifer Jenkins and Whitney Shefte contributed to this report.