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City Limits

‘When I’m the Trauma Surgeon on Call and I Hear About a Gunshot Wound, I Have to Cross My Fingers and Say a Little Prayer’

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: Hartford, Connecticut.

In August, Hartford, Connecticut, recorded its 20th homicide of the year, becoming one of several American cities to surpass its 2014 total before summer’s end. This year, the ethnically diverse, 378-year-old capital city of 125,000 has experienced more murders than much bigger Boston. 

Connecticut has some of the strictest gun laws in the county, but a firearm has played a part in all but three murders in Hartford this year. Deputy Police Chief Brian J. Foley tells The Trace that many of the crime weapons come from straw buyers, home break-ins in the suburbs, and out-of-state gun runners tied into the interstate drug trade. “Vermont’s gun laws are loose, and heroin is plentiful in Connecticut,” Foley says, describing the black-market dynamics. “We’re seeing a lot of guns trafficked in.” 

The influx of illegal guns is compounded by a host of city-specific conditions that have contributed to the rise in violence. Foley points to the retirement of 150 police officers, poverty, poor housing conditions, and the reduction in funding for Hartford’s shooting task force.

Yet a strong community-policing model remains in the city, sources tell The Trace, and rather than being viewed as an intractable problem, gun violence in Hartford is being analyzed and studied, and solutions are being drafted in lock-step with community groups. Residents remain hopeful that the city can bring the death toll down. 

“We had such a low homicide rate last year,” Foley says. “We’re all going to learn from this as the years unfold.”

As part of a weekly series, The Trace shares the stories of Americans living in the midst of the nation’s urban gun violence epidemic.

The pastor whose next vigil was for his son

Pastor Sam Saylor, 57, had spoken at 19 vigils for gun violence victims when his son, Shane Oliver, 20, was shot and killed near the Sheldon Oak Apartments on South Prospect Street in 2012.

Before Shane was shot, I went around thinking I had skin in the game, that the people who were dying violently in our city were my people. I’d give words of comfort and hope to those who lost people, but I’d look into their faces and could not truly identify with them. When you have skin in the game, it takes you to a whole other level of communication. People were trying to do with me what I’d done with other families: calm me, comfort me, empathize. But after Shane died, I saw how it was just insufficient words.

My son had been buying old cars, fixing them up, and selling them. He went back to the old neighborhood, Sheldon Charter Oak, where his mother still lived, to get some money that was owed to him. His fiancée waited in the car. It’s a safe neighborhood. Three guys coming toward the car decided to talk to her, you know, the way boys do. When Shane came out, he said, “Look man, that’s my fiancée. Why don’t you chill out?” They proceeded to sell wolf tickets, and instead of backing down — my son didn’t know how to walk away — he challenged the guy. Shane had a stroke when he was born and had a partially paralyzed right hand and foot, and he limped. All his life he had to deal with kids who saw his handicap as a weakness, so he knew to get the first punch in. He hit the guy real hard. The guy got up, went to his car and came back with two friends and his gun. One bullet hit Shane in the leg and the other hit him in the back. It was a .22, so it didn’t go in and come out. Twenty-twos are notorious for wreaking havoc on your internal organs, like a pingpong ball. And he lost his life.

The boy got into his car and drove away. A couple weeks later, through good cop work and good neighborhood work, he was captured and convicted, and is now serving 40 years on a plea bargain. We took a chance and spoke directly to Shane’s killer at the arraignment, and we were basically thrown out of court. I told him he eliminated a precious life, and he can’t press the restart button. I told him that Shane has a daughter he didn’t know about — his fiancée didn’t know she was pregnant when he died — and how he was not gonna be there to protect her from the evil of the world.

After Shane died, I wanted the world to hear me, but the world was moving on. When Vice President Biden came to town after the Sandy Hook shooting, family members of gunshot victims were invited to be part of the symposium. We’re sitting there listening to the speakers talk about violence in Newtown, and I’m thinking, “When are you going to start mentioning Shane, and urban violence?” And I heard this man whimpering and crying, like I would normally cry. I thought I was hearing myself: “What is that? I’m not crying, but I’m crying.” I’m thinking it’s a psychological breakdown. I realized it was a guy right next to me, who’d lost his son in Newtown. This man would probably give both of his arms to have his son back. He didn’t ask for the attention, or to be part of this discussion. He just thought about the many missed opportunities he’s going to have to face. And I recognized that we’d just been inducted into the same club. Our tears and whimpers sounded the same.

The trauma surgeon who says a prayer with every new patient

Dr. David Shapiro, 42, is the chief of surgical critical care at Saint Francis Hospital and a member of the Hartford Shooting Task Force.

When I was in college, I worked at Hartford Hospital during the summer break, in the transplant center. One of the first organ donors I’d ever seen was a man who shot himself in the head and caused brain death. Since then, I’ve seen it all: the kid under 10 who wanders into a closet and finds a handgun; the depressed teenager who knows that a gun is accessible, and it becomes his backup plan; people who are shooting each other over turf. Two people who shot each other who are brought into the hospital the same night. Police shooting a perpetrator and coming to the hospital to arrest him while he’s being cared for. When I’m the trauma surgeon on call, and I hear about a gunshot wound, I have to cross my fingers and say a little prayer. Because even the best of surgeons can’t get you out of trouble if you get shot.

The majority of gun violence victims here are Latino or African- or Caribbean-American, between the ages of 15 and 35, and — I use this word seriously — they are pleasant. When they come in with a gunshot to the leg, they are uniformly kind and comfortable and asking questions. They are not trying to demonstrate that they’re better than anyone else. They are human beings in a bad situation. They may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe they were instigating — we never know at the hospital level.

To be honest, I don’t want to know. I don’t know if the person who comes through the door is a drug dealer or a criminal. I just know they are my patient. I’d rather just take care of them, say, “Listen, the likelihood of you being shot again is very high. And I want you to think about that when you go home, and change and make a difference for yourself.” 

From the moment you are born, you are influenced by what’s around you. If you are from a poor area and you didn’t have the best school system or opportunities, is it your fault that a gun is put in your hands by a gang? My answer is no. It’s our fault. It’s the whole community at large. We have to be responsible for our people. People are not being taken care of when a young woman is more likely to get pregnant than finish high school. We have to stop blaming one population or another, one firearm or another, or one politician or another, and instead focus on the fact that we are all responsible for the solution.

The mother who can’t explain to her son what he has lost

September Chatfield-Cox, 36, is the mother of Tyrek Marquez, 14, who was shot at Hartford’s West Indian Day Parade in 2008. She grew up in Hartford’s North End.

My family frequented the West Indian Day parade. We camped out on Main Street and Cleveland, and my son Tyrek, who was 7 years old then, got shot right across the street from there. He was walking with my daughter and my little cousins, and they heard some guys arguing, followed by gunshots. My son was struck in the head with a stray bullet. Six people got shot that day. All of them, except for the one who died, were under 16. Later we learned it was gang-related. They were at war over drugs and turf, and they saw each other at the parade and decided to start shooting.

Tyrek was hospitalized for two months. He had to learn how to walk again, and now he has a limp. He’s partially paralyzed on his left side and unable to use his left hand. He can’t do simple things that we take for granted, like tie his shoes. He’s starting high school this year and doesn’t want to have to constantly ask people for help. But he’s changed for life. When they pulled that trigger and that bullet struck my son, it took a part of him. He was such a sporty kid: He played basketball, he played football, baseball, he ran around with other kids. After the shooting, in elementary school, they made him the waterboy. He said, “Mom, I don’t want to be the waterboy anymore. I want to play.” How do I explain to him that’s never gonna happen because of what they robbed you of?

I grew up in the dead center of the North End of Hartford. I was numb to the gun violence. We heard shots ring out every day. I just thought this was the way of living. Now I look at it totally different, and I don’t understand how people have the mindset that I had before. Because this is not the way we are supposed to live. This is not okay.

Today, the North End and the South End are where you get all of the gun violence. My husband and six kids are in New Britain now, which is about 20 minutes from the city — before Tyrek got out of the hospital, I vowed that I was not going to bring him back into Hartford, where we were so used to hearing the gunshots. I don’t want him to have to live with that. He was traumatized enough. But I’m in Hartford almost daily because my parents are here. This is my community. This is all I know. When I want some West Indian food, they don’t have that in New Britain. So I come to Hartford.

But we don’t do the West Indian Day parade anymore. I always find something else for my kids that day. And they never ask me if they can go. I think it was just a mutual agreement that this is something we won’t do. Now Tyrek is at the age when he likes to roam around with his friends. But I’m on him, like, “No, you can’t do this.” I don’t even want him out of my sight for that long. I’m always, always worried about him. And he’s quick to say, “But Mom, this isn’t Hartford.” He thinks it can only happen there. I’m like, “I don’t care. New Britain is better, but, I mean, it can happen anywhere.”

[Photo: Flickr user Jayu]