The nine bullets that almost killed Derrick Strong came without warning, as he stood talking with a friend beneath a carport in New Orleans last November. They ripped through his stomach, bladder, rectum, a lung, his right arm, and both legs. He survived, but his life has profoundly changed.
More than 80,000 people survive a gunshot injury each year. Earlier this year, The Trace launched a survey of shooting victims, seeking to better understand the toll violence exacts on individuals, their families, and their communities.
Strong was one of the first to respond. This is his story.
The shooting put me in the hospital for about two weeks. Since my release, I’ve been constantly back and forth for surgeries — seven in all so far. Soon, I have to get another surgery to remove a stent in my bladder.
The first few months, I was in a wheelchair. More recently I’ve been on crutches, and using a cane. Some days my body’s feeling strong. Some days my knees are throbbing and hurting and I need support to stand. It’s hard for me to walk, stand, run. I don’t have full range of motion in my arm. If I try to bend down and pick something up, it’ll hurt my back. If I bend my knee too far, it’ll hurt. If I sit too long, it’ll hurt. I can’t touch my shoulder with my right hand. I can’t flex my bicep.
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Whenever I’m in the hospital for a surgery, they send a physical therapist to work with me. But outside the hospital, New Orleans doesn’t really have much. I was referred to a few places, but when I got to one, I found out they didn’t accept my insurance. I went to one clinical therapy place, and they don’t take Medicaid. I said, “Do you know anybody that does?” They said not in the downtown area.
I’ve been doing my own physical therapy. I’ve been taking martial arts since I was young, so I might go to the Mississippi riverfront and invite a martial artist that I know to spar with me. Or go to a more secluded park to do some breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi. That’s been helping me cope. I do a lot of walking — though now just going around the block is kinda hard. My leg aches. I get tired faster.
Another thing — I don’t really have transportation. Several months before the incident, I was living in an apartment with a girlfriend, but during a fight I punched a hole in the wall. The landlord said we had to go. I’d been staying in hotels, looking to rent a new apartment. After being shot, I went to stay with my sister, who lives in Luling, a small rural town about 50 minutes from New Orleans. I wanted to stay away from the city and recuperate — I didn’t want to be seen in the state that I was in. As I gained strength, I moved in with my brother in Chalmette, which is closer to the city.
Losing my self-reliance had me in a depressed mind state. Before, I had the mobility and the resources to make my ends meet. Now I live with other people, depend on others for transportation and money. Even though my family’s fine with it, it’s still a hassle. Usually my brother or sister pick me up. But if my brother’s working and I have an appointment at 2 o’clock, then I won’t have a ride there.
Being shot nine times put me in a state where I can’t really work. Before, I was doing community organizing with a nonprofit in the St. Roch Park area — right near where I was hit. I can’t earn a living wage anymore. To make money, I’ve been doing motivational speaking, selling CDs of my own music, and selling artwork in the French Quarter. Sometimes it’s pictures of superheroes, scenery, a person’s face. I’ve been drawing a lot of flowers lately. But bending my arm for too long causes pain.
I’m still pretty young, I’m only 28 years old. But I feel like I’m 50. How can I get back into the workforce being disabled? I’ve been worrying about trying to find a job; I’m still waiting on disability benefits. It already was a challenge because in my early 20s I was formerly incarcerated for numerous crimes — drug possession, arson, burglary. Now I’m a disabled felon, so the opportunities are narrowed down even more. If I don’t have any income coming in, what situation will I be forced into?
I feel like my overall capabilities will never be the same. But I’m still able to walk. I’m still alive. My last name is Strong — that’s what kinda motivated me to get better, you know?