Growing up on Cincinnati’s west side in the 1980s and ‘90s, Will Thomas remembers an ongoing soundtrack of gunshots and sirens. His dad wasn’t around much, and he hated seeing his mom struggle, so he tried to earn extra money by mowing grass, washing cars, or shoveling snow.
The family was poor and his living situation less than ideal. He remembers seeing what he thought were raisins in his breakfast cereal, only to realize they were cockroaches. By age 15 or 16, Will had lost interest in both sports and school, but he thought he knew what success looked like. The older guys riding up and down the street with big rims on their fancy cars, their jewelry sparkling, enthralled him. “I wanted to be like them,” he says.
By his early 20s, he was like them, contending with all that lifestyle entailed. Will was embroiled in a tit-for-tat feud with guys from another part of town. They fought over drug turf, women, and simply not liking each other. One day in early 2005, just 10 days after his 23rd birthday, he threw chili on the girlfriend of a rival — another volley in the ongoing territorial dispute. That afternoon, four guys from the opposing crew tracked Will down and shot him.
He was hit in the leg, the stomach, the side, and twice in the back. Lying on the sidewalk, he says, he felt no pain, only an odd tingling in his legs. For a moment he panicked, and then he told himself to breathe.
Later, Will listened in disbelief when the doctor told him that the bullet had severed his spine and that he wouldn’t walk again. He felt angry, terrified, humiliated. For the first few weeks at the rehabilitation center, he says he refused to let people into his room or do his physical therapy. He blasted harsh rap music about guns and murders to scare off the nurses.
Social workers and psychologists liken adjusting to a spinal cord injury to waking up on another planet. Once-simple tasks, like putting on a shirt or getting out of bed or going to the bathroom, suddenly require great effort. Pressure sores, urinary tract infections, pain, and depression are common complications. And patients paralyzed by gunshots often go back to the same environment where they were nearly killed.
While there’s no concrete tally of gunshot survivors living with paralysis, the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center estimates roughly 39,700 people in the United States have spinal cord injuries because of acts of violence.
Before being shot, Will was active and tough and self-sufficient. Now he couldn’t turn over in bed without asking for help. “It was almost like I went from being the king of the universe to a worm,” he says. He describes trying to get a glass of water, spilling it, and then falling out of his wheelchair when he insisted on cleaning it up alone.
The experience “really more pushed me into the shadows,” Will says. For the next few years, he did what he knew how to do. He continued selling drugs, and in 2008 he was sentenced to 18 months in state prison for cocaine trafficking. After that, he spent another four years in federal prison.
Will believes going to prison saved his life. One day at Elkton Federal Correctional Facility in Lisbon, Ohio, Will says he was watching television in the dayroom and an older man came over. Will recognized him as Tommy Howard, a guy from the neighborhood where he grew up.
“He was real messed up, he wasn’t very active,” recalls Tommy. “All Will would do is sit in his wheelchair.” He told Will that his life wasn’t over, and encouraged him to join the workout class he ran for other inmates. He helped him strengthen his core, and Will took it seriously.
Before long, Will was holding his own fitness classes for people with limited mobility. He remembers staking out half the basketball court and calling out the reps. Not all the participants were gunshot survivors. “They were in wheelchairs, some had walkers, some had canes. Some were just overweight,” Will says.
Whether it was realizing he could still use his body, or being respected by the other inmates, running the fitness classes gave him a “euphoric feeling,” says Will. “It made me feel like I was really here for something, like somebody really needed me.”
Will was released from prison four years ago. Now 36, he has been trying to recapture that feeling and purpose. He’s been attending drug counseling and physical therapy. He plans to return to school and become a certified fitness instructor for people with disabilities.
He found a mentor in Stan Ross, who run an anti-violence initiative in Cincinnati. Just as Tommy pushed Will to start working out in prison, Stan has been nudging him to adapt to life after prison.
“I’m really trying to get myself together,” Will says. “Trying to change the way I think, change the way I eat, change the way I live, even change the way I react to certain things.”
But, he adds, “I was living the lifestyle for so long, it’s hard to just change overnight.”
Will says his old friends still offer him alcohol and weed, even though he’s on parole. As recently as last year, he was cited for a small amount of marijuana. He seems to wear an armor of caution, forged over years of vigilance and fighting. He might be sitting in a Walgreens parking lot, he says, and he won’t be able to stop looking over his shoulder, watching everyone who passes. Even in casual conversation in his home, he constantly glances out the window.
These days, Will’s greatest defense may be his humor. He tells stories through a spectrum of funny voices and faces. When conversation veers toward the serious, he pulls it back into lighter territory with a joke or a cackle. He tries to conjure the life he wants by memorizing and reciting motivational sayings. He still falls out of his wheelchair sometimes, he says. It doesn’t bother him anymore.