After the Bullet

A Loyola Phoenix project

The Paramedic

Photography: Chris Hacker

Cindy Briere rarely gets a day — or night — off.

Recently, she worked alone in the back of a speeding ambulance trying to stabilize a person suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.

After an hour of trying to stabilize the patient’s breathing with a manual ventilator, the patient died from a severed aorta.
Briere said in the heat of the moment she has to stay completely focused on the task of stabilizing her patient and anticipate what could go wrong.

“You could blink and something changes,” Briere said.

Although she said this was a particularly severe incident, it’s not uncommon for Briere to see things like this on a weekly basis. She’s a 13-year veteran of ATI — short for Ambulance Transportation, Inc. As a critical care paramedic, she’s responsible for the successful transfers of patients from lower level hospitals to trauma centers — hospitals equipped to treat patients with life-threatening injuries — throughout Chicago.

From its mid-sized warehouse on South Stewart Avenue, ATI operates 28 ambulances, including two devoted to critical care. The critical care ambulances are usually out on patrol, and it’s in the backs of these that Briere works from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. often three nights per week primarily dealing with the city’s epidemic of gun violence.

“In a week, [with] 12 hours shifts, I would say probably anywhere between 60 percent to 70 percent of the runs that I do … are directly related to some kind of violence,” Briere said.

In the past five to six years, Briere said she’s seen an increase in gun violence in the city.

“I feel like everybody is collateral damage, and they’re shooting without limits,” Briere said.

Shooting incidents in the city this year through April 2 are up 67 percent compared to that same time period four years ago, according to Chicago Police Department crime data.

Briere said she does a lot of patient transfers from the South and West Sides of the city. Hospitals such as Roseland Community Hospital, St. Bernard Hospital, Norwegian American Hospital and West Suburban Medical Center commonly treat people who suffer violence and need trauma care, according to Briere.

“Let’s say that someone gets shot on the West Side and their friends drop them off at West Suburban. Now West Suburban, not a bad hospital, but it’s not a trauma center, meaning they don’t have trauma surgeons [and] they don’t have the capability of taking care of critically injured patients,” Briere said. “So we go there, we package [them] and get [them] as stable as we can and transfer them … to a trauma center where they need to get.”

Due to Briere’s role in the care of trauma patients, she deals with critical patients on a nightly basis. She said she witnesses how cruel humans can be to one another first hand.

“I don’t necessarily ask why. I do find myself saying how. How can be people so cruel to each other?” Briere said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever come up with an answer.”

The Bridgeport-based Ambulance Transportation Inc. operates 28 ambulances, including two devoted to the transfer of critical care patients, around the city.

Even with the extensive years of schooling and on-the-job experience it takes to become a critical care paramedic, Briere said nothing prepares anyone for the emotional side of her job.

“At the end of the day, you’re dealing with human life, and they teach you how to fix it and how to maintain it,” Briere said. “They don’t necessarily teach you how to deal with it on a personal or an emotional level.”

As a result, Briere has had to do her best to detach herself from the patients she deals with. She constantly reminds herself that no matter what happens, she will be safe at the end of the night and that once a patient reaches that trauma center, they are no longer her problem to worry about.

“You definitely become calloused over time,” Briere said, adding that it’s not an easy process and must come with experience.

“I think it depends on where you come from … and how you’re brought up and just different things that you’ve experienced in life [affect] how easily you’re able to make that transition to ‘This is your job.’”

Briere grew up in the Logan Square neighborhood on the Northwest Side, an area notorious for gang violence. She said it’s probably that background that let her easily adapt to the harsh realities of violence in the city.

Still, when patients die in the back of Briere’s ambulance, when she witnesses children in critical condition or when she takes care of sexual assault victims, it can stay with her. She said the worst thing a person can do is ask a paramedic to recall the worst thing they’ve seen.

In reflecting on her role as a paramedic, Briere said the defining characteristic of her job is to provide human interaction not just to her patients, but to their loved ones as well.

“It’s that human compassion that I feel like is really key,” Briere said. “Sometimes that gets lost, and I try to make sure that I do maintain that awareness that these are people and we’re dealing with people really in the worst times of their life, when they’re at their lowest, and you just have to be a human being.”

That compassion has driven Briere to check up on past patients, reassure the families and friends of patients outside trauma centers and even attend the funerals of patients who died despite her care.

“Sometimes you can’t shut off the human side completely,” Briere said.

The Doctor

Photography: Marc Rosales II

Doctor Erik Swenson was working what seemed to be a typical night shift at Advocate Christ Medical Center when a gunshot wound patient came into the emergency room.

The patient was a young man and the doctors rushed to help him. The patient’s injuries were assessed as non-serious but he still needed to be taken to an operating room for minor surgery.

Swenson, the patient and other doctors gathered into the elevator to transfer the patient to the operating room. While in the elevator, the patient suddenly experienced complications and died.

Swenson said he still gets emotional about that particular patient because it was so unexpected.

“It’s tough,” Swenson said.

Christ (4440 95th Street) is a Level 1 trauma center in southwest suburban Oak Lawn, serving many patients in the southern part of Chicago. Level 1 trauma centers are able to provide care for any aspect of injury, according to the American Trauma Society.

The hospital provides emergency care for more than 100,000 patient visits annually and has one of the busiest Level I trauma centers in Illinois, according to Christ’s website.

Swenson no longer works at Christ but said the hospital would help an average of five or six people suffering from gunshot wounds in one night, sometimes as many as 15.

“It was a war zone at times,” he said. “I think we all were pretty tapped out trying to take care of all of those people. I mean there is multiple cat scans and trips to the operating room and follow ups and chest tubes and just so much effort put in to take care of these people.”

Christ is about 20 minutes west from the South Side of Chicago but is the closest trauma center to the South Side.

Advocate Christ Medical Center is a hospital located just outside the South Side of Chicago in Oak Lawn, a southwest suburb. It is a Level 1 trauma center — providing care for any aspect of injury — and the closest trauma center to the South Side.

Swenson said the problem with trauma centers being located far away is that many people who have been shot often die on the way to the hospital.

“We were able to save most patients that made it in, but some couldn’t even make it to the hospital,” Swenson said.

With the city’s gun violence taking place predominantly in the West and South Sides of the city, Swenson said the hospital would see a lot of patients in need of immediate care.

“We would see patients who would need immediate attention for gunshot wounds,” he said. “For some of them, this wasn’t the first time they had been shot. Some had gunshot wounds from a previous time and the bullet was still in their body and we had to work around it.”

Christ also acts as a referral hospital, meaning patients would be transferred to Christ if the hospital did not have the means to take care of the patient’s injuries.

“We would also see trauma patients sent over from other hospitals that already did everything they could,” Swenson said. “At Christ, we could take care of all of the patients.”

As of April 1, there have been 927 people shot this year, and 581 shooting incidents in the city, according to the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) weekly crime statistics. Out of those shootings, 159 people died. In 2016, there were more than 3,500 shooting incidents with 4,368 shooting victims.

Within the last month, there have been 160 shooting incidents and 232 people shot, according to CPD crime statistics. Of those people, more than 170 were under 30 years old and only about 20 were female.

Swenson said the gun violence in Chicago felt surreal in that hospital.

“You know, you travel to your home in the suburbs and travel to work and you know it’s a whole other world.”

The Funeral

Photography: McKeever Spruck

Preparing a six-month-old girl’s body for a funeral isn’t an easy task in any scenario.

Not when she died in her dad’s lap. Not when she died of crossfire as an innocent bystander. And not when she’s just the latest name in Chicago’s seemingly never-ending list of people killed by gun violence.

Spencer Leak Sr. has done that type of heart-wrenching work since he was 12 years old.

Leak, the 80-year-old executive funeral director, president and CEO of Leak and Sons Funeral Homes, said his line of work weighs on him.

“There’s no way that you don’t take this home with you,” Leak said. “This is a business where you just can’t leave it at the office. It’ll stay with you.”

Leak took over the family-owned business when his dad passed away in 1993. Exactly 60 years earlier, his dad had opened the first funeral home in 1933 in the Fuller Park neighborhood on the South Side. In 1959, the home moved farther south to the Chatham neighborhood and has stayed there ever since.

In the heart of the South Side, Leak and Sons has been hit by the city’s violence as much as anyone.

Leak said in 2015, the funeral home prepared just more than 100 people killed by gun violence. In the past couple years, he said that number has risen closer to 150 — or about 20 percent of the 747 people murdered in the city in 2016.

As Leak has seen his entire life, those aren’t just numbers — they’re people with families and lives suddenly destroyed.

And that’s something his entire family has learned, with all three of his sons starting work at 12 years old. After his dad put him to work as a child, Leak said it was only right he’d do the same.

“We had to work if we were going to eat,” Leak said. “My daddy, that was his mandate. And I instill that in my sons, what I inherited you’ll inherit from me … You have to have a personal relationship with families in order to be effective, so I try to instill that in my funeral directors, especially my sons. I don’t want a family to come in without seeing one of my family, if not myself.”

Leak has taught his sons how to be funeral directors since they were young, and he says it’s not an easy job.

Leak, 80, said he makes time to speak with every family that comes into his funeral home. “Families want to know that you care about them. And they can tell.”

A lot of the work involves comforting family and friends who lost a loved one. Funeral directors have to balance showing they care with keeping their emotions in check.

“What I teach my people is as much as it may weigh upon you, you’ve got to understand that to do an effective job, you’ve got to still be a professional,” Leak said. “As depressed as you might be, you still have to be able to give that service, answer the questions, be dignified, but at the same time let them know that you care about them.”

Leak knows better than most how to deal with the emotions involved with being a funeral director. While dealing with the death of a six-month-old girl wears on his emotions, he still has a job to do. He said the first priority is catering to the needs of the deceased person’s family.

“[She was] the most beautiful baby you’d ever want to see,” Leak said. “That hurts. Especially when you’ve got grandchildren, and you see that baby caught in the crossfires of this senseless violence going on in our city. But if that’s hurting me, you know what it’s doing to the mother of that baby.”

Leak isn’t a novice when it comes to violence in the city.

In 2000, he retired from his state government career, one which included his service as the executive director of the Cook County Jail. For seven years after his dad’s death, he was working at the jail and running the funeral home.

“I was just weighing one against the other,” Leak said. “I can talk about that 30 years from it because the sheriffs can’t do anything about it. The sheriff allowed me the flexibility. He knew that my father was ill and the business needed me at the same time that the jail needed me. So we had to do some things, but we still ran it properly.”

When he retired, he focused on running the funeral home. While Leak can’t do it all, he has a team of funeral directors to help with a number of responsibilities — preparing the body, finding a date and place for the service, managing financials and selecting a casket, if necessary.

While the funeral directors focus on those details, Leak said he still tries to talk to the family or friends of every person who is serviced at his funeral home. Sometimes he even goes to the funeral.

“Families want to know that you care about them,” Leak said. “And they can tell. You can’t fake it. And if you’re trying to fake it, you won’t make it in this business because people know when you’re sincere.”

That doesn’t mean there’s a set formula to be a funeral director.

“Every family has different circumstances, different issues even though they are all coming to seek funeral service,” Leak said. “You can’t let your thoughts depress you. Your thoughts should make you a more effective funeral director by saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do this this way this time.’ So it’s a learning experience on a daily basis because every family’s different, every issue is different.”

The Family

Photography: McKeever Spruck

“It happened again.”

On Feb. 15, 2015, those three words changed Laniya Bradley’s world. Laniya’s daughter told her a detective had called and was coming to discuss something that happened to Lynel Bradley.

The family thought the police meant Lynel Sr., Laniya’s brother, assuming the situation was similar to when Laniya’s brother Michael had been killed by a drunk driver in 2011.

Laniya eventually got a hold of her brother and learned of the mistake: It was her 21-year-old nephew, Lynel Jr. that had been killed, not her brother.

“I completely lost it,” Laniya said.

Laniya, 48, who works and studies at Loyola, had a deeper connection with her nephew, as she had legal custody of him when he was about 5 or 6 years old. Lynel Jr. had returned to his parents and had been living on the South Side at the time he was killed.

Lynel Jr. was driving his friend’s car that night and was with two other men when another car pulled up and opened fire at 71st street and Loomis Boulevard in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side. Lynel was fatally shot multiple times.

Lynel Jr.’s death remains unsolved, according to Laniya. She said that while there were cameras at that street corner, they had been broken for more than two years at the time of the shooting, providing no evidence of what happened.

Someone had also posted footage on social media of Lynel Jr.’s body after he was shot, Laniya said, but it was removed before they could figure out who had posted it. She said she believes Lynel Jr. had known the person who shot him.

But with no new leads, the Bradleys haven’t gotten closure on the case.

Laniya said she feels the police are choosing to put the case on the backburner because of her nephew’s past.

Lynel Jr. had gang ties and had been in jail, but was turning his life around at the time of his death, focusing on his music career. Laniya said his girlfriend at the time had also been a good influence on him.

Lynel Bradley Jr., 21, was killed in Englewood in 2015. He had promised his aunt Laniya that he would stay out of trouble and had been focusing on his music career.

“We feel like the city is not going to do too much of anything because of his gang ties. The first thing they’re saying is, ‘OK, he’s a known gang member. He was on parole. He was this, he was that,’” Laniya said. “What does that matter? He still had a life. He was still human. He still had a family. He got siblings, he got a father, he got people that loved him.”

Laniya has been a main support system for her family in these times of need. One of nine siblings, Laniya knows everyone’s birthdate and social security number by heart. Laniya said her family constantly turns to her because she’s gotten the most education of her siblings.

“It can get frustrating [taking care of family], but at the same time, I know it needs to be done,” Laniya said. “I don’t even see it being right to not [help].”

While Laniya has been the backbone of her family, she has coped with the pain by embracing her faith and writing poetry. She joined Kingdom Baptist Church the day her brother Michael was killed by a drunk driver.

“Religion became most important to me because it was my way of coping with things,” Laniya said. “It was relaxing to me to know that [even if] at first when you didn’t believe that there is an existence of someone that died for your sins [and] that someone is looking over you, when you start believing it, that’s when you see all the positive. That helps you get by.”

Laniya began writing on the day of her brother’s death.

One of Laniya’s favorite poems spells out “KINGDOM,” and describes her faith and love of her church community. She wrote her nephew’s obituary and poems from the perspectives of his sisters and father.

Still, Laniya has her times of grief. She was hit hard this Valentine’s Day, which is also her birthday — the day before the anniversary of her nephew’s death.

“It was emotional for me,” Laniya said. “Even though it was my birthday [and] it was supposed to be a happy day for me, the thought of … what had happened on that day brought tears to my eyes.”

For Laniya’s family, gun violence had an impact even before her nephew’s death. Her niece Shawntel Hawkins was shot in 2010 when she was 20 years old.

Laniya woke up to the sound of Hawkins’ sister screaming that night. The family tried to quickly get to the hospital, but they didn’t have a car to travel from the North Side, where Laniya was living, to Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. After a bus, train and car ride, they arrived to Hawkins’ emergency surgery. Hawkins survived, but she said she now has metal plates in her arm.

Hawkins, 26, had been in the Ashburn neighborhood near 83rd Street and Homan Avenue, a place she wasn’t familiar with. She said she had been alone at the time of the shooting and had pulled over to get directions on her GPS. She was a student at South Suburban College — she hadn’t been getting in trouble.

“They never solved the case. We don’t even know why it happened. Why she was targeted, did the van look like somebody else’s? Who were they looking for? We don’t know,” Laniya said.

This lack of resolution is common for African-American and low-income communities, according to Laniya. She said there isn’t enough support for these areas, which leads to widespread, aimless violence.

“It starts with the youth. If you don’t get them in order then it’s gonna all fall apart and it’s gonna keep going that path. Get some control over what’s going on in the urban communities, stop ignoring them,” Laniya said. “And that’s what’s happening. There’s nobody really dedicating what needs to be done in the urban areas.”

Laniya has also emphasized the need for education to combat the violence. As the first high school graduate of her siblings, Laniya has made it a priority to further her education. She obtained an associate’s degree from Truman College and is now studying ad/PR part-time at Loyola, where she also works as a night monitor in residence halls.

Laniya said she believes proper education makes a difference in kids’ lives and has always pushed its importance to her own children.

“[They need] something to encourage them that education is important. Most of these kids, when their families or their parents are single family homes that themselves don’t have the education — [that] is the reason why … some of these kids don’t go farther,” Laniya said. “For my nephew, his mom was not a high school graduate. My brother was not a high school graduate.”

The Artist

Photography: Alex Levitt

G Herbo doesn’t believe in the term “Chiraq.”

He knows that Chicago is more than the violent city that many articles, publications and documentaries make it out to be.

Born in a place he calls “Terror Town,” Herbo’s South Shore neighborhood on the South Side has been notorious for decades for its high levels of violence and gang activity. With a slew of mixtapes, Herbo provides his listeners with a human side to the statistics and horror stories. He chronicles the violence and curbside vigils with unmatched vividness and conviction; his lyrics are pointed and his graveled rasp poignant even at its most chilling.

Herbo’s music doesn’t operate at a noticeable remove from his city’s unrelenting turmoil. Instead, he offers a hardened and wizened first person perspective.

Despite growing up in a two-parent household with siblings who he felt he was close with, Herbo said there were some significant challenges in his neighborhood.

“Growing up as a kid in the South Shore area, it was rough, but it definitely made me everything I am,” Herbo said. “I had to learn everything on my own. I learned right from wrong, and I went and learned the streets of Chicago and the rest of the world on my own. The key aspect was survival, getting home that day and not being jumped by these groups of dudes on that block.”

Since coming onto the Chicago rap scene in 2012, Herbo has continued to refine his voice as a true-to-life documentarian of the street life he encountered growing up.

His spitfire verses have caught the attention of people including Nicki Minaj and Common, but despite collaborating with a number of high-profile artists, Herbo hasn’t lost his vision of being a family man and spending time in Chicago.

In this sense, Herbo also thinks he differs from other drill rappers. Drill music was founded in the early 2000s, and for the most part, it could be considered Chicago’s rap reboot due to its strong subject matter on gangs, guns and drugs.

Many drill rappers’ models are inspired by the local patron saint of drill rap, Chief Keef, who successfully leveraged the persona of a black supervillain. The more he portrayed himself as a reckless, gun-toting, ruthless murderer, the more attention he got. Eventually, Interscope Records signed him to a $6 million record deal

In recent years, mainstream stars including Kanye West have thrown their support behind many young drillers, including Keef and King Louie. Big celebrities backing this music has only thrown gas on an already raging fire.

Although somewhat affiliated with Keef, Herbo said that he doesn’t want to be grouped under a drill music umbrella.

“I’m a product of my environment and I come from negativity, but I’ve overcome that,” Herbo said. “I don’t consider myself a drill artist. You can compare my music to early Hov and Nas and those types of people. I’m telling real stories about my struggle, my life and my pain.”

Drill is often criticized for being ignorant, facing the claim that it helps to perpetuate the cycle of violence its performers and listeners face. But Herbo said that beneath the surface of its crime-ridden lyrics, is a reflection of the gritty life primarily facing young, black-impoverished youths throughout inner city neighborhoods.

“I have a younger sister and I have to be a role model for her,” Herbo said. “I always wanted to keep her away from fights and from negativity. I was the only guy in my group of friends who had a younger sister, so you could imagine the things she saw and heard. It’s an environment where when she was young, I’d have to walk her home from school because people were shooting.”

His younger sister was involved with some close calls but Herbo’s not a rookie to the violence either. At the beginning of the second verse to “L’s,” the song that opens the dedication mixtape, “Ballin Like I’m Kobe,” G Herbo lists off more than a dozen names of friends who have died to violence in Chicago.

Herbo said that “Ballin Like I’m Kobe” itself was a dedication to a fallen friend of his, Jacobi D. Herring, who was killed in 2013.

““Ballin Like I’m Kobe” was a transition from me being that 16- or 17-year-old to me being someone who’d seen a lot at that point,” Herbo said.

Herbo plans to release new music, but said he won’t forget his city. “I want to paint a clear picture and tell the truth to the kids of Chicago because that’s what’s right.”

The murder of a number of his close friends helped him to realize that violence can strike anyone at anytime. Despite living under that constant stress, Herbo said he would never change his upbringing.

“I would never change the fact that I’m from Chicago, or anything that I’ve ever been through,” Herbo said. “Every situation I’ve been in has made me who I am today. It’s made me a thinker; it’s made me sharper.”

Although his pride and optimism for the future of Chicago is tangible, the gun violence in Chicago doesn’t stop. Ostensibly, it feels as though solutions could be conjured to curb Chicago’s problem with rampant gun violence. But Herbo said that it’s not going away anytime soon.

“It never ends,” Herbo said. “At any moment you could go out and lose your life. Or you could go to jail protecting your own life. It doesn’t end because anyone can be the next victim, someone close to you, someone you love. I always have to be cautious and think a certain way.”

There is seemingly a silver lining, however, at least for Herbo. Herbo said that the events in his early life, specifically the murders of some of his close friends, shed quite a bit of light for the rapper on what he values.

“Seeing death first hand made me value life. [It] made me never take life for granted,” Herbo said. “Chicago prepared me for the world. If you can survive in Chicago, you could survive in any state, any country, anywhere.”

Herbo is reinventing the stereotypical image of an urban rapper. By rapping about his struggles in everyday life and how he’s overcome them, other young people might be able to feel like they can do the same.

In 2017, Herbo plans to release lots of new music, but also said that Chicago has a bright future, if everyone’s involved, from the youth all the way to the politicians.

“I have so much work to do, and I have so many good things I want to do for the community,” Herbo said. “I want to paint a clear picture and tell the truth to the kids of Chicago because that’s what’s right. I want to work with non-profits and landscaping companies to buy my neighborhood back and create more opportunities. I want to see the kids growing up to be successful.”

The Survivor

Photography: Nader Issa

Jason Williams was talking with his cousins in the front yard. His back was to a metal fence when a man walked up behind him. The sound of a gun discharging rang through his ears, but to Williams it just sounded like fireworks.

Jason, an 18-year-old from the Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side, stayed conscious long enough to see Shatoya and Antonio White, his cousins, start running away.

But then everything went black.

Jason hit the ground face first so hard that he regained consciousness.

“I didn’t know what was going on, but I noticed worms and ants,” Jason said. “My cousin’s boyfriend was helping me sit up and I kept yelling, ‘I can’t feel my legs, I can’t feel my legs.’ And he said, ‘Because you got shot in your legs.’ And I told him, ‘I can’t feel that either.’”

Jason suffered two gunshot wounds to his back and leg. Motionless, he laid there for about 40 minutes, waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

Hours earlier, Jason was like most men his age. He was about to graduate from Wells Community Academy High School in the summer of 2016 and was working part-time as a cashier and manager at a Wendy’s restaurant. He was busy planning the perfect prom night for his girlfriend and trying to decide what he wanted to do after graduation — continue his education or get a full-time job.

Jason, the oldest of seven children, said he felt like he was finally getting his life back together after his dad died the year before.

In 2015, Jason lost his biggest supporter to an asthma attack. His dad was 34 years old when he passed.

“It took me a month to get back on my feet. He was my backbone,” Jason said. “It’s hard without having my dad here because he was my supporter and he was my best friend … I realized in a month that there was nobody else here supporting me, and so I got a job at Wendy’s.”

After his dad died, Jason moved into his grandma’s house in the Humboldt Park.

That’s where he woke up home alone the morning of the shooting, watching the 2002 movie “Barbershop” in his grandma’s room. While watching, Jason called his girlfriend and decided to go spend the day with her.

Jason Williams went back to his cousin’s house where he was shot once since the incident happened, but he said he couldn’t get himself to leave the car.

On his way, Jason stopped at his cousin’s house to talk to someone about how hard it was without having his dad around.

His cousin, 35-year-old Shatoya runs a daycare center from her house on the 4900 block of West Monroe Street in the West Side Austin neighborhood. Shatoya was outside with the kids and Jason was talking to her about prom, which was less than a month away, and telling her the exciting news that he was searching for an apartment.

Shatoya’s brother Antonio, 29, had joined the two outside on the porch.

But when the gun shots went off, Antonio helped his sister take the kids inside the house. There, Antonio told his sister that he thought he’d been shot, and then dropped to the ground in the kitchen. He was shot in his chest — a detail Jason didn’t learn about until later.

“When I was on my way to the hospital, I was in shock. I’m not sure what’s going on and I asked the guy, ‘Am I gonna die? Am I gonna die?’ And [the paramedic] said he doesn’t know. And I say, ‘What do you mean you don’t know?’” Jason asked. “In my mind, I’m like for you to be that type of person and to say that, you a person in that situation, you’re supposed to support that person.”

Jason immediately went into surgery and the doctors found that a bullet had gone through his back and out his shoulder, hitting his spinal cord and paralyzing him from the waist down.

When the doctor told Jason he was paralyzed, Jason laughed.

“I believe I laughed because I wasn’t sure about it and I wasn’t focused at that time. It was pretty hard just to hear it so I just laughed at it,” Jason said. “I was like, ‘Why me? Why me within this time of me grieving over the fact I lost my dad, not even a year ago?’ I was just getting back on my feet. I was doing so good within the fact of me continuing to build my life without him.”

After spending time in the intensive care unit, Jason moved back home with his grandmother. His aunt, Margret Williams moved in with Jason to help him get adjusted to his new lifestyle.

Margret, who had helped raise Jason like one of her own kids, said the pain was unbearable when she first learned about Jason being shot.

“I was devastated,” Margret said. “This is not happening and I’m like, ‘Really? Shot?’ Who would do something like this to him? He was a good kid, a working student, getting good grades,” Margret said. “The person that did this is heartless.”

Jason said he tries to live as normal a life as possible. He was named his high school’s prom king one month after the shooting. A few weeks later, he crossed the stage at graduation and received a standing ovation while accepting his diploma.

Now, Jason is in his first semester at Arrupe College, pursuing his two-year associate’s degree.

Margret said she’s proud of Jason for continuing to live his life.

“I told him, ‘You’re not going to lay around this house and scoot around in your chair,’” Margret said. “‘You’re going to school. You’re going to finish. And you’re going to live your life and it’s going to go better.’”

Jason said the hardest change he’s had to make was having people help him. He says he’s an independent person, but now he needs assistance every day.

Stairs are his biggest challenge. Every morning before school, his girlfriend comes over, helps him down the stairs and drives him to school.

Jason sometimes has doubts, but he said he’s writing a book titled, “Life Without a Backbone,” in hopes to inspire others to get through the hard times.

About the project


It takes a fraction of a second for a bullet to leave the barrel of a gun…

But the effects of that bullet last days, weeks, months and even years. In this special edition of The PHOENIX, we examine the trail the bullet leaves in Chicago.

View the issue in print.

Print layout: Grace Runkel

Online design & development: Patrick Judge

Got feedback? Contact us.