At his graduation from medical school, Kevin Morton Jr. sat beside the woman who saved his life.
It was nearly a decade since he was shot in an Arby’s parking lot, sustaining injuries so severe that the early prognosis gave him only a 10 percent chance of survival. But Dr. Dharti Sheth-Zelmanski, the surgeon on call in the trauma unit that night, didn’t let that happen.
The care he received over many surgeries and his long recovery inspired Morton to evaluate what he would do with his second chance. The answer came naturally: He’d pay it forward by becoming a doctor himself.
In 2007, the year he was nearly killed, Morton was in his fourth year of college, but only had enough credits to be considered a junior. He had fallen behind in school, working 40-, sometimes 50-hour, weeks at an Arby’s to pay his bills.
The restaurant was on Detroit’s infamous 8-Mile. When Morton, then 22, was the last to leave late at night, he’d start his car remotely while still safely inside. He’d quickly lock up and hurry to his car to drive away as fast as he could.
One Sunday night in early July, Morton was leaving well after midnight. He rushed to his car as he had done so many times before. Just as he put it in reverse, a stranger appeared at the driver’s side window. Morton can’t remember if the man said anything or gestured, but he does remember seeing the gun just before the bullet pierced the window and punctured his left side. His memories are fuzzy, but he remembers thinking that he needed to get to the police station a mile down the road. He accelerated in reverse and made it about half way when he blacked out and crashed. He was in and out of consciousness when the ambulance arrived.
Morton woke from his medically induced coma several weeks later. The bullet had passed through his diaphragm and hit a major blood vessel and an artery. Portions of his pancreas, small intestines and colon were removed. He suffered a collapsed lung. Due to complications from his surgeries, he couldn’t eat, so he was fed through an IV for a year.
Through it all he remained positive, focused with awe on Sheth-Zelmanski and her dedication to his recovery. She was attentive and never left him without hope.
“I was so grateful to Dr. Sheth for saving my life and not giving up on me,” Morton, 31, said in an interview. “When you get a second chance at life you have a new-found purpose. I want to be like her. I want to be in the position to do what she did for me for others. Maybe there will be someone else who will come in with potential and all they need is a fighting chance.”
He went back to college at Oakland University in 2009, but this time declared his major as pre-med. He took extra biochemistry and microbiology classes to catch up, and even went back to work at Arby’s, albeit in a different neighborhood. That same year, he married his high school sweetheart, Sherry. Sheth-Zelmanski and her husband attended the wedding. When they walked in during the reception, Morton stopped the party and gave her a hero’s welcome, introducing her to his guests as the woman who saved his life.
“I remember crying for joy,” Sheth-Zelmanski said.
Morton considered going to Physician Assistant school, but he said his father encouraged him to “set your goal on what you want to do and don’t do anything less.” Then, by pure happenstance, he sold his motorcycle for some extra cash and the buyer was an ophthalmologist who also gave Morton similar advice.
So in 2012, he took the MCAT and was accepted to Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. He chose to specialize in general surgery, the same as Sheth-Zelmanski.
He did his student rotations at St. John’s Hospital in Detroit, walking the same halls where he was once a patient. He’ll start his residency there in July — almost nine years to the day he was brought there as a shooting victim.
“It has been nothing but a fuel to my passion, being in the same hospital and sometimes having triggered memories. I just live it as a blessing every day,” he said. “I thank God everyday. I’m so thankful I have this opportunity.”
When he was a young boy, Morton lived with his mother in a rough neighborhood on the “wrong side of the train tracks,” he said. He moved in with his father when he was 8 years old. His dad had a steady job working nights at the Chrysler factory. His father instilled in him a strong work ethic, so Morton did his best to get good grades and stay away from trouble. But as a young African-American growing up in Detroit, he said he wasn’t exposed to role models in fields like medicine. He didn’t know any male black doctors, so growing up he didn’t know he could dream that big.
So Morton reached out to the middle school, where his wife is a teacher, and offered to run a six-week program to teach kids about pursuing a medical career. To participate, the students have to write a two-paragraph essay about why they want to successful. They met weekly and he showed them medical equipment and how to suture a wound on a pig’s ear.
On his graduation day earlier this month, Morton asked Sheth-Zelmanski to hood him, an honor given to a close family member or mentor when receiving an advanced degree. Again, she wept. She said she told him, “I’m old enough to be your mother. What more can a mother want from a son than their best?
“There’s no greater joy than to realize what I do on a day-to-day basis can create such a change in somebody for the better,” she said. “I feel like I know that if anything is ever wrong with me, I know where I can go. I have full faith he’s doing to do very well with his patients.”
And that’s Morton’s goal: to be the kind of compassionate and engaged doctor that she was for him.
“At the end of every visit, I want them to fell like they are a part of my family or a friend they can count on,” Morton said. “I’m basically paying back what was given to me, that spark of hope, that individual attention. I just want to continue to give that back.”