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Shot and Forgotten

Gunshot Survivors Describe What May Lie Ahead For Las Vegas’s Wounded

"In the beginning, anything frightens you."

Iris Sherman was in Chicago for work, hours from giving a major presentation about her tech startup, when she spotted the headline about the Las Vegas shooting on her phone. She read the first few paragraphs and then stopped herself. She was able to make it through her talk, but as soon as it was over she darted to the restroom, where she wept.

When Bruce Johnson in Mankato, Minnesota, heard about the shooting, he avoided watching the news all day.

At home in Los Angeles, Joshua Stepakoff felt a familiar numbness. “I have to almost put up a wall so I don’t let these things affect me,” he said.

For the past six months, The Trace has been documenting what life is like for people after they are shot. On Monday, we reached out to people who’d taken our survey, inviting them to share what they remember from those first transformational hours and days. We wanted to know how they processed what was happening to them; what it was like to return home from the hospital; what gave them hope. Within hours, 10 had responded by email or phone.

Each respondent was shot under different circumstances, and each suffered different injuries. Sherman was wounded by a stray bullet while driving through Rockville, Maryland, two years ago. Johnson was in a classroom when a fellow student opened fire. Stepakoff was shot twice by a white supremacist while attending a Jewish day camp in 1999. Their memories ranged from scary to sweet to macabre: Needles and tubes, gifts of toys from wellwishers, the stickiness of blood.

There were also shared experiences. Here are a few that many respondents described.

Leaving the hospital with bullets still in the body

While treating gunshot wounds, doctors sometimes elect to leave bullets where they are. If a bullet is lodged in non-vital tissue, such as muscle, digging through more tissue to retrieve it could cause further damage.

This was the case with LaShea Cretain, who was shot five times by an ex-boyfriend in 1996. Three bullets entered her head, and one struck each hip. “I was bleeding internally, so at the hospital I had a stomach surgery to remove some of my organs, part of my colon,” she said. “They tried to remove some of the bullets, but the bleeding was more serious. They have never removed any of them.”

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Fighting overwhelming physical pain

Physical anguish is a hallmark of most gunshot wounds. When Sherman was shot, the bullet sped through muscle and tissue and came to rest near the femoral artery in her right leg, causing throbbing pain. Sherman binge-watched shows on Netflix to distract herself.

But at night, she had nowhere to hide from the pain and flashbacks.

“You have nothing to distract you,” said Sherman, who spent the early nights in a recliner to elevate her injured leg. She said she tried hypnosis, relaxation techniques, and melatonin, none to great effect. “The pain was so bad in my legs that I could not have the blanket on top of me. And the memory of getting shot would go over and over and over like a broken record. The three scenes I saw were looking at my legs full of blood; half-coherent watching my son take care of my leg; and just the overall impact of me screaming, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve been shot.’ I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want to go into that place.”

For John Owens, who was shot while walking into a Detroit television station and suffered a spinal cord injury, the agony was all-consuming.

“My reality for about the first five to seven days was a minute-to-minute reality of fighting through the pain,” Owens said. “Then maybe I’d get some morphine that would relieve it for a few minutes, and then I’d start to fight all over again. That’s all my life was.”

The pain subsided, but Owens still hurts. “I always tell people April 15th, 2005 at 4:30 pm was the last pain-free day I have ever experienced in my life,” he said. “Since that point, I’ve had pain — it’s constant and never stops.”

Struggling with media attention

In 1975, Bruce Johnson was a graduate student studying multivariate statistics when a fellow classmate opened fire, hitting him in the right shoulder.

“I was on a stretcher being carried out of the building I was shot in, my shirt was off, and there was a camera in my face. I flipped the camera guy the bird. I never got my picture in the paper,” Johnson said with a chuckle. He said the reporters didn’t stop pursuing him. “The media then even got ahold of me when I was in the E.R. I got 10 doctors working on me and they found a way.”

Seeing threats in everyday life

“In the beginning, anything frightens you,” said Satedra Smith, wounded by random gunfire on a porch step in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1999. “One thing I was thinking, I’m never gonna wanna drive, I’m never gonna wanna go outside. It really causes a blockage of the mind, an insecurity, because you don’t know if it could happen again to you or anybody around you.”

Joshua Stepakoff was injured at a Jewish community center in 1999. Just 6 years old at the time, Stepakoff developed severe anxiety attacks. Unable to bear being away from his parents, he couldn’t spend the night at friends’ houses. But even when he was home, everyday noises would terrorize him.

“There were just so many triggers in everyday life that would set me off,” he said. “The sounds of helicopters, sirens, the sight of police officers, the sight of fire trucks, anything with flashing lights, loud noises. I would run around the house, lock all the doors, close all the blinds, and start blasting music so I could drown it out. That was pretty intrusive for the rest of my family, when I would close down the house.”

Feeling lonely and isolated

Layla Bush was shot twice in 2006 when a gunman entered the Seattle Jewish Federation, where she was working as a receptionist. She awoke in the hospital weeks later to learn that one of her co-workers had died, and that she had missed the burial.

“I felt so alone in my mourning, both for her and for the shooting in general because everyone else had already gone through the process,” Bush wrote in an email. “The severity of my injuries meant I was left feeling isolated, even though I was one of five GSW (gunshot wound) survivors, not to mention my many uninjured co-workers who also struggled with the trauma of the shooting. Sometimes not being able to go through that process at the same time as others because of serious physical injury is it’s own kind of unique and very lonely trauma.”

Realizing that this is just the beginning of a long medical journey

All the survivors who spoke to The Trace said their recovery process was just beginning in those first few days. Physical therapy, subsequent surgeries, and infections lay ahead. Bush said she developed a rare lung infection. Owens had to relearn to walk and familiarize himself with using a wheelchair, which he still uses regularly.

“It was a year of, honestly, hell,” Sherman said. “A horrible year of antidepressant medication and painkillers and infections. People told me it was the infection that could kill me, not really the bullet.”

Johnson considers himself lucky. After three major surgeries and a year and a half of physical therapy, he still has only 50 percent range of motion in his arm. “My right shoulder is an inch and a half lower than it should be,” he said. “I can’t lift things. It kind of ticked me off when my daughter was born and I couldn’t really pick her up.”

Owens said that, for him, the pain and despair gradually faded.When you’re by yourself at the hospital, it can be rough at times,” he said. “You’re lying there and you can’t get out of bed and you’re hooked to a bunch of tubes. You end up feeling sorry for yourself, ‘why me?’, the whole bit. But once I got home and started to get into some routine, started experiencing some nice things — being outside on a nice day, going to a park — then you feel better.”