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Urban Violence

Meet the ‘Neighborhood Medics’ Trained to Save Chicago Shooting Victims Before Ambulances Arrive

A novel program turns bystanders into first responders.

This article was originally published by Every Other Hour, a WBEZ Chicago project that asks the question: In Chicago, who picks up a gun and why?

A few weeks after she turned 15, Journey Jamison saved a man’s life. It was a hot Sunday afternoon last July. Journey said she was lying on her couch in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood when a stranger burst through the back door — bleeding from his neck.

“I’ve been shot. Can you help me?” the man pleaded.

Journey had recently been trained for this kind of situation, and she immediately said yes.

This story is about that yes. About a program that teaches Chicago residents to care for shooting victims, control a chaotic scene and talk to cops and paramedics. About how one group is enabling families to take more control over their surroundings in a city plagued by gun violence. About how learning to help your neighbors can change your view of the city you live in.

Journey’s story is part of a monthslong WBEZ project that looks at gun violence in Chicago and how people across the city respond to it.

Journey Jamison poses in front of the apartment where she used her UMedics training to save Deante Starks’ life. [Andrew Gill/WBEZ]

Neighborhood medics

When that man stumbled into Journey’s home, she knew what to do because of a grassroots group that trains everyday people to give emergency first aid to shooting victims.

The program is called Ujimaa Medics, or UMedics. Ujimaa means “collective work and responsibility” in Swahili.

In 2013, the city’s inspector general released a report on how often paramedics took more than five minutes to get to a medical emergency. The results: longer response times were more common in some parts of the South Side.

UMedics co-founder Martine Caverl said the city’s violence, along with health disparities and ambulance response times, can make people feel powerless. So she helped found the UMedics group, which led its first training in 2014.

“We wanted to say to people … this is one thing we can do,” Caverl said. “You know, when we hear the gunshots we are going to make sure we are safe, but then we are likely to see what is going on because we have something we can offer.”

Martine Caverl is one of the founders of UMedics. [Andrew Gill/WBEZ]

UMedics training teaches people how to care for shooting victims until an ambulance arrives. Caverl said the training now also includes lessons on how to treat those suffering from an asthma attack because asthma is another danger plaguing the African-American community.

At first it was the asthma training that most intrigued Journey. When she was 9 years old, her best friend died from asthma complications. When she learned the UMedics training included asthma, she became really committed to the program. Journey now helps teach courses at high schools and community centers in how to care for those suffering from asthma attacks and gunshot wounds.

Caverl said her group counts five shooting victims and two people suffering from asthma attacks who have been helped by UMedics members using their training.

One of the people UMedics has trained is the man Journey saved.

A street medic patch marks a first aid kit at a UMedics workshop in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. [Andrew Gill/WBEZ]

How to care for a shooting victim

Deante Starks, now 21, said he wasn’t planning on doing anything big the day he was shot.

“It was just a chill Sunday,” he said.

Starks said he and three other people had stopped at a gas station to buy chips when a man with a gun got out of another car and opened fire. Starks and one of his friends were hit.

“I didn’t know instantly I was shot,” Starks said. “I thought kids threw a rock through a window or something. It just felt like someone hit you with all their might across your face.”

Starks said he got out of the car and ran through an alley. To this day, he said he’s not sure why he decided to then run through Journey’s back door.

“Her first reaction, she was scared,” Starks said. “I guess she thought I was one of the guys shooting.”

Journey, however, felt confident in her training. She called 911 and she knew what to say: She told the operator the shooting had stopped and it was safe for paramedics to arrive. Journey said she then grabbed a pair of white jeans and used them to apply pressure to Stark’s neck to stop the blood flow.

How to handle the crowd

As Journey cared for Starks, strangers who heard about the shooting started coming into the home to see what happened. That’s when Journey’s mother, Kenisha Jamison, returned home.

Kenisha Jamison stands in front of the apartment where she used her UMedics training to help Deante Starks’ the day he was shot. [Andrew Gill/WBEZ]

Like her daughter, Kenisha Jamison had taken a UMedics class and later became an instructor. She remembered her training on crowd control, which draws on understanding the human urge to gawk.

“People want to be involved, people gaze,” Kenisha Jamison said. “It’s just a sense of human connectivity.”

At the scene of a shooting, people may take out their phones to take pictures or live-stream a video of the victim to the internet, Kenisha Jamison said. Others may start talking about seeking revenge. The UMedics training teaches that these are natural emotional responses, and the best way to handle them is to give people something they can do at the scene.

A UMedic may ask people to get water or locate the victim’s family, Journey said. They may even ask a crowd to form a line, with their backs to the person shot, to shield that person from public view and provide privacy.

“A lot of time, all that built-up energy is just a void of not knowing what to do,” Journey added. “That vengefulness — that ‘man I can’t believe who did this, I’m so angry’ — that comes from them wanting to do something.”

Day Davis and Kofi Ademola demonstrate how to interact with police officers when helping gunshot wound victims at a UMedics workshop in June. [Andrew Gill/WBEZ]

How to deal with cops and paramedics

Journey and her mother said they found the UMedics training on how to interact effectively with cops and paramedics to be especially helpful the day Starks was shot.

Kenisha Jamison said when the first paramedic to walk through the door told Journey to take her hands off Starks. She did, because UMedics are trained to follow paramedics’ instructions. But when blood started gushing from Starks’ neck, another paramedic told Journey to put her hands back until they could take over.

Jamison said she worries when people see a black teenager, like her daughter, they assume the young person can’t possibly be helping.

“The challenge is that she is black, she is a child, and she is in a black neighborhood,” Jamison said.

Other UMedics said they are especially thoughtful about what assumptions police may make about a black person at the scene of a shooting.

Journey and her mother said they worry more about what might happen when police arrive than the possibility that the shooter could come back. That’s a big reason why UMedics are trained in how to interact with police. They’re taught that if an officer says “put your hands in the air,” then you should follow the officer’s instructions — even if it means taking pressure off a wound.

“It’s traumatic because they shoot people,” Kenisha Jamison said. “And this is what I train people on, you are in the most dangerous situation because of the police.”

In Kenisha Jamison’s case, she didn’t want police in her house after Starks was shot. She said she initially told them not to come inside because the crime scene was across the street. She relented when officers threatened to arrest her if she didn’t let them in. She said the training helped her to remain calm.

Expanding UMedics

After Starks got out of the hospital, his family hosted a UMedics training at their house.

They said Stark’s grandmother has asthma, and other relatives besides Starks had been shot in the past. The family said they wanted to be able to care for people the way Journey and Kenisha Jamison cared for Starks.

Caverl said UMedics is now expanding its training to cover mental health and diabetes.

She said she knows the training isn’t a magic solution. It alone won’t solve gun deaths, segregation, health disparities or joblessness. But it is a strategic decision to invest in the people who live on the South and West sides.

“We are in a situation where people are leaving Chicago. And for UMedics members, it’s a place that we love,” Caverl said. “We want that community, in particular our community, to feel a sense of pride in themselves and each other.”

That’s why, at the end of every training, they ask the group: Do you think the people in this room could help if you were hurt? Do you think they would?

Overwhelming, Caverl said, people say “yes.”