On December 19, 2016, Brenda Herron received a phone call that made her heart plummet. Michael, the teenage boy she had been taking care of for the past three years, had been shot. The 15-year-old and his three siblings live with Herron in DuPage County, just outside Chicago. But that day they had been visiting relatives on the city’s South Side.

The kids were out of school for Christmas break, and they were going to visit their family — their grandfather was terminally ill. Around 3 o’clock, the dad gave Michael permission to go to McDonald’s. I’m from that area, but Michael didn’t know there’s been an ongoing war out there for years. On his way back to his dad’s house, a car pulled up. They shot Michael four times — one time in the chest, one time in the stomach, and two times in the side.

After learning of the shooting, Herron, who is a healthcare worker at a nursing home, jumped in her car and raced to Comer Children’s Hospital. The Level 1 pediatric trauma center treated 51 children who were shot last year. All were 15 or younger.

When I first walked in, Michael was sedated, tubes running in and out of him. I was crying, the kids were crying. I was having migraine headaches, throwing up.

The doctors told Herron that Michael was lucky to be alive — his breastbone had protected his heart from a bullet. As his primary caregiver and legal guardian, Herron would be responsible for helping him through his recovery.

Herron says she and Michael’s three sisters spent Christmas Day keeping vigil in the intensive care unit.

He stayed on life support for about two weeks. It was about 30 days before he was even able to drink water.

The drive to and from Herron’s suburban house and the hospital took an hour, sometimes longer with traffic, and the costs quickly began to add up.

For like the first month, we were running back and forth to the hospital every day. Traveling, parking, paying for gas, paying for the tollways — that money goes fast. We were either eating out somewhere, like McDonald’s or Chinese food, or in the hospital cafeteria.

Michael, 15, was shot four times while visiting his parents and grandfather in Chicago in late 2016. After a long recovery, he plans to return to school in March. (Photo: Alyssa Schukar for The Trace)
Michael, 15, was shot four times while visiting his parents and grandfather in Chicago in late 2016. After a long recovery, he plans to return to school in March. (Photo: Alyssa Schukar for The Trace)

For low-income families, a sudden calamity like a shooting can rupture an already-fragile safety net. Last year, On the Media interviewed Margaret Smith, an Ohio woman whose teenage son was shot outside her house. He lived, but the shooting set off a domino effect: Smith lost her housing and her job, relocated to a shelter, and was forced to spread her kids among relatives.

Herron was already struggling to support Michael and his three sisters. She is also supporting her own daughter, who is in her first year of college at nearby Aurora University. Michael’s injuries have further deepened her financial stress.

I work at a nursing home, and I make $13.50 an hour. When Michael got shot, I took off work for six weeks. I have to work 60 hours or more a week just to keep my head above water. I usually do doubles on the weekends, 16-hour shifts.

All four kids have learning disabilities, and one of Michael’s sisters receives a disability check in the amount of $735. Besides that and food stamps, I don’t get any cash assistance from the state to support these kids.

After Michael’s shooting, my cousin made a GoFundMe page. I raised like $9,700. I had to use it as catch-up money — for all the food and travel when we visited the hospital, or for babysitters to watch the other kids when I had to run to the hospital on a moment’s notice, because I was worried about Michael. That money is gone.

I had just bought Michael a brand new coat, but when he was shot the paramedics had to cut it off him. There was so much blood on it, I threw it away. I got him a different style. I didn’t want it to bring him memories.

Once gunshot victims leave the hospital, they often face an arduous recovery. Many return to the same high-crime neighborhoods where they were shot. Many have trouble accessing extensive medical or mental health care, according to Jooyoung Lee, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who studied the lives of young black men critically wounded by gunshots in Philadelphia.

After spending more than a month in the hospital, Michael returned to Herron’s home at the end of January. Herron used some of the GoFundMe money to upgrade his bed from a twin to a double, so he could be more comfortable. When she’s working at the nursing home, Herron’s mother or fiancé watch the kids. But when she returns home, it’s like she’s back on the clock.

It’s like taking care of a newborn baby. If he’s in pain, I have to wake up out of my sleep to give him pain meds. Right now he has a JP Drain, which drains the fluids off the wounds as they heal. He needs his bandages changed every three days. He takes medications three times a day, a strong antibiotic so he doesn’t get infections.

The bullets damaged his abdominal area, so the doctors had to remove part of his stomach and pancreas. He has lost so much weight, and he doesn’t have an appetite. Right now he can only eat soft food, like jello. We have to give him Boost protein milk to help him gain weight, but the insurance doesn’t pay for that. You can get it on sale, $7.99 for a six-pack, but he drinks three or four in a day. I’ve bought like $300 in milk already.

In states that opted to expand the Affordable Care Act, gunshot survivors were able to access treatments, surgeries, and specialists they previously could not. Illinois is among the 32 states that have expanded coverage since 2014. Last year in Chicago alone, the shooting victim tally exceeded 4,300. The vast majority of those victims — 80 percent — survived.

While some gunshot victims have benefitted from the healthcare expansion, the system still has gaps. Between ministering to Michael’s wounds and portioning out his medication, Herron is also navigating a bureaucratic labyrinth of insurance and healthcare providers to secure the care Michael desperately needs.

Michael is able to walk, but when he first came home he was walking bent over because he was in a hospital bed for so long. He needs outpatient physical therapy, but we have crappy insurance. The kids and I have Medicaid. The cost of insurance through my job is too high. You have to make a choice: Do I pay health insurance or do I eat?

When the hospital discharged him they gave me a referral for a physical therapist, but I have to find the places that will actually accept our insurance. Right now, I’m just trying to do the best I can as far as giving him home therapy. I’ll tell him, “You need to walk up and down the stairs 10 times.” Sometimes he’s short of breath; sometimes he can only go three times.

Exposure to violence can also harm the way young people learn, behave, and relate to others. Research shows that young victims can develop psychological issues like anxiety, withdrawal, and posttraumatic stress, as well as chronic health issues including asthma, hypertension, and substance abuse. The emotional trauma can hamper their performance in school, and spur them to commit violent acts themselves.

For the past three years, Herron has been supporting Michael and his sisters, the children of a family friend who was unable to care for them. She says that, before they came to live with her, they were “living like gypsies” — struggling in school, going hungry, sleeping in cold places.

“When they came with me, they were able to have some structure,” she said.

She took them to the doctor and got them enrolled in school in DuPage County.

“These kids went from straight Fs to honor roll students,” Herron said.

Michael, an honor roll student, now spends days at home. According to Herron, because it’s flu season and he still has open wounds, the doctor doesn’t want him to go back to school until March. He may have to attend summer school to make up for missed class.

The shooting has shaken the whole family, rattling the sense of stability and security Herron had worked so hard to provide.

Michael is healing, but it’s bothering him mentally. He’s nervous. He wasn’t able to identify his attackers. The perpetrators are still out there.

You know how school buses back up and make a ‘pow’? He heard that recently, and he was scared. He don’t even want to go outside. He want to just be in the house. Michael said every time Christmas comes around, he’ll think about the shooting. He said, “This is going to be with me for the rest of my life.”

This has been a nightmare for me and these children. They were doing so good. But now that all my attention is on Michael, his sisters are acting out. One of them got in trouble at school, and got suspended. Not only does he need counseling, the whole house needs counseling.

It’s wearing me down. It’s been days where I say, I can’t do it, I gotta give em back, let them be the state’s problem. But if I give ’em back, they’re gonna split ’em up four ways. My heart won’t let me do that. I’m all they have.

Elizabeth Van Brocklin is a staff reporter at The Trace, where she covers urban gun violence. She is documenting the experiences of gunshot survivors, and the challenges they face in recovery. Have you lived through a gunshot injury and want to share your story? Email Elizabeth at [email protected].