What I Learned From Getting Shot and Almost Dying
I haven’t said or written much publicly about the shooting that nearly killed me in 2008. But a recent confluence of events — Trayvon Martin’s death, the Zimmerman trial and the public pronouncements of mostly privileged, mostly white people in the aftermath of the verdict — has left me feeling like I have something to share.
Most recently, actor-activist Kal Penn, once an avowed opponent of racial stereotyping in law enforcement (based in part on his own experience getting patted down at airports), changed his views after he was held up at gunpoint in Washington, D.C. (Penn published a brief explanation late last week, and apparently reconsidered his view over the weekend.)
Racial profiling for thee but not for me. That’s how it looks, at least. It’s probably more complicated than that. I don’t know. I asked Penn on Twitter to discuss the evolution of his views with me, but didn’t get a reply. Maybe he didn’t see the request. Either way, the offer still stands.
What I can say with some authority — whether this is what happened to Penn or not — is that being a victim of gun violence doesn’t have to turn you into a supporter of racial profiling.
My story is more than five years old now. It took place in Washington, D.C., on a typically warm July night. I was out late on a Tuesday with a friend whom I’ll call Matt, since that’s his name. We’d been drinking — probably too much for a weeknight, but not too much for a 25-year-old journalist.
A half-hour after last call, on our walk home up 16th Street northbound toward Mount Pleasant where we lived at the time, we impulsively decided to grab a late night snack at a 24-hour diner we used to frequent in Adams Morgan and hung a left up Euclid Street — a dimly lit one-way street with a violent history.
I’d been up and down Euclid hundreds of times over the years — midday and late at night; alone and with friends; drunk and sober; and just about every permutation thereof. Always without incident.
This time was different. About half a block up Euclid, Matt and I encountered two young men — both black, both wearing hoodies, characters culled from Richard Cohen’s sweatiest nightmares. They wanted our phones, which we were cleverly holding in front of our faces as we walked.
We declined, gently under the circumstances. I worried we might end up in a fight. Maybe one of them had a knife, or a larger group of friends around the corner. I know I would’ve surrendered my phone eventually, but not before suggesting they go hassle someone else. Maybe they’d figure we weren’t worth the trouble.
They didn’t oblige. The kid opposite Matt drew a small, shiny object from wherever he’d been concealing it and passed it to his accomplice, who was standing opposite me. A second or two lapsed — long enough for me to recognize they weren’t joking, but not long enough for me to beg — before it discharged clap clap clap; my body torqued into the air horizontally, like I’d been blindsided by a linebacker, and I fell to the ground.
The kids fled east in a hurry, the same direction we’d come from down Euclid street. I stood up right away. Strangely I felt fine. Something had knocked the wind out of me, and my shoulder hurt a little bit, but ridiculously in hindsight we concluded it was an extremely effective prank. Rubber bullets. Something. If it’d been a real gun, I wouldn’t be standing.
Shake it off, I told myself, then onward to the diner.
Half a block later I didn’t feel so good anymore. I removed my T-shirt (a red one, inconveniently) and realized it had masked a badly bleeding shoulder wound. My adrenaline-fueled defiance gave way to the gory injury staring me in the face, and some important things dawned on me: I’d been shot. We were within firing distance of at least two armed men willing to commit murder. They hadn’t taken any of the things they’d claimed to want. And, oh yeah, I’d been shot.
Fortunately Matt was fine. Call 9-1-1, I told him as we started running. Ask for police and an ambulance. We were headed west on Euclid, as fast as we could, to put quick distance between ourselves and the thugs with the gun.
The 911 operator wanted us to stay put. “How will we know where to send the ambulance?”
“But they have a gun! They shot my friend!”
“Fine, just keep updating me with your location.”
We turned north onto 17th Street and made it another 30 feet before I couldn’t run anymore. Couldn’t breathe very well either. That was the moment I realized I’d suffered more than just a flesh wound on my shoulder. I slumped down against a fence on the east side of the street, in pain, but mainly just winded and growing sleepy. No good. I noticed intricate metalwork on a fence across the street and forced myself to focus on it. Stay awake, I told myself. Matt, per 911 instructions, was putting pressure on my shoulder wound, using my shirt as a rag, as if that was the cause of my sudden immobility.
The ambulance drove past us. I motioned frantically. Flag it down! He did, just in time. It stopped short of the intersection and the EMTs got to work. They found an exit wound in my back. They ran fluid into a vein in my left arm to revive my sinking blood pressure, but it worked too well. I no longer felt like I was on the verge of unconsciousness, but for the first time I could feel the full extent of the pain wracking my upper body. I’d strongly advise against getting shot. It hurts very badly.
The bad news, one EMT told me, was that I’d suffered a punctured lung. The good news, he added, was that they’d caught it quickly, and it should heal just fine. They loaded me into the back of the ambulance, snipped off my clothes, and did their level best to ignore my impolite demands for pain medicine.
“What’s your Social Security number?” I gave it to them. “Can I have some drugs?”
“What’s your dad’s cellphone number?”
“If I give it to you will you give me some drugs?”
I knew it was a lie, and I was angry. But I was also relieved I wasn’t too far gone to recall that information.
Within minutes of the shooting, we arrived at Washington Hospital Center — a giant, sterile maze on the border of northwest and northeast D.C., where doctors treat so many victims of violent crime that the government seeks them out to train military surgeons before they deploy into battle zones. Or so I was later told.
During the transition I got one last bit of good news from the departing ambulance driver — “Congratulations, Brian. You’re the latest survivor of D.C. violence.” Then came the bad news from an attending physician in the emergency room. “Brian, we have to take you into surgery. We have to remove your spleen to save your life.”
I remember thinking that a splenectomy was probably as unobtrusive as an appendectomy. I knew people who’d had their appendixes removed, and they’d all recovered pretty quickly. Either way, I wasn’t about to argue. “I don’t care, I just need those drugs.”
They wheeled me into the operating room, and administered anesthesia. The last thing I remember before I finally lost consciousness was a nurse or doctor saying, “The surgeon’s not ready for him.”
I woke up a few hours later in recovery. My sister was there. My editor. Matt was somewhere. I was groggy, and wearing an oxygen mask, but I knew where I was and why. I wiggled my shoulder. “Feels fine,” I thought to myself, surprised. I even wondered for a minute if I’d be released in time to catch a flight to Seattle, where I’d planned to spend the Fourth of July. That all changed when I scratched my chest and nearly ripped out a staple. Odd. Below it there was another. I traced a line of them from my sternum down to below my belly button.
It turns out that even if a bullet only causes minor internal damage, doctors have to cut you wide open — to perform a procedure called an exploratory laparotomy — to make sure they’re not missing anything dangerous or fatal. In my case there were three bullets, including the one in my shoulder, and the injuries were pretty severe. Punctured lung, punctured diaphragm, punctured stomach, ruptured spleen, broken ribs, a hematoma on my kidney. One bullet tunneled harmlessly around the bones and muscles in my shoulder and remains lodged in a back rib on the upper-left side of my body. Doctors removed another with my spleen. The third missed both my aorta and my spine by an inch or less, exited my back and landed on Euclid Street. A little this way and I’d be paralyzed. A little that way and I’d have bled out before the ambulance arrived.
I lost plenty of blood anyhow, probably over six units. The doctors put a tube in my chest to drain my lung, and two in my abdomen to drain my peritoneal cavity.
I spent a week and a half in the hospital, but never without company. My dad, who as luck would have it happens to be the best clinician I know, arrived within hours and took de facto charge of my care.
When the hospital released me I was still in bad shape, mentally and physically. After a couple months I lost my job. I moved out of the group house I’d lived in for two and a half years and in with a girlfriend, who lived in New York at the time. I worried I’d run out of money, have to move back to California, start all over.
I didn’t want that. But a part of me wondered if it might be for the best. People don’t get shot in Redlands very often. I knew my internal consigliere would eventually whisper that to me, and sure enough it did.
But the moment I woke up in the hospital I promised myself I wouldn’t let what happened change the way I approached life. I wouldn’t flee the city. I wouldn’t start looking over my shoulder. I wouldn’t let it affect my views on race or crime or guns, both because I liked the way my life had been taking shape, but also because at a fundamental level I knew I’d just been profoundly unlucky. Even in a high crime city like D.C. most people going about their business on any given day or year or decade don’t get shot. Mugged, maybe, not shot.
Which isn’t to say my only scars were physical. It took my body about three months to heal, then another three before I’d sloughed off enough self-pity to start working off the 40 pounds of booze and Hostess snacks I’d added to my waistline in a sedentary state of self-pity. During that time I harbored revenge fantasies — relished them, even. For my suffering, I told myself, I’d be justified returning to the scene of the crime, armed and eager to mow down the first punk who tried to roll me.
That all passed. But to this day, I flinch when I look over a balcony, or when my airplane hits a patch of unexpected turbulence. That never happened to me before. The vivid image of a van or bus flattening me in a crosswalk flashes through my mind if I realize a few steps into the intersection that I haven’t looked both ways. These are minor inconveniences, and I’ve become pretty good at controlling them or shaking them off quickly by reminding myself why they’re happening. Mind over matter.
Five years later I’m in great health. I have a much stronger sense of the degree of trauma and hardship I can endure. That’s not an abstraction anymore, the way it had been, and the way it is for most people. My career trajectory ironically improved after the shooting and sometimes I wonder if I’m better off on the whole for having gone through it.
That’s helped me keep the promise I made to myself. I live in D.C. again, half a mile from where it all went down, and have for four years running. I go out at night without hyperventilating, though I take more cabs than I used to. I didn’t buy a gun, though several well-wishers seemed to think that night would’ve ended better if I’d been armed and had initiated a saloon-style shootout in the middle of the street. Other well-wishers wondered — let’s not sugarcoat it — if the experience had turned me into a racist.
Those emails were easy to respond to.
Penn got in trouble for touting the supposed merits of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. To the objection that the policy disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos, he responded, “And who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?”
But that’s a non sequitur. A false rationale. Take people’s fear out of the equation and the logical artifice collapses. Canadians are highly overrepresented in the field of professional ice hockey, but it would be ridiculous for anyone to walk around Alberta presumptively asking strangers on the street for autographs. When you treat everyone as a suspect, you get a lot of false positives. That’s why above and beyond the obvious injustice of it, stop and frisk isn’t wise policy. Minorities might commit most of the crime in U.S. cities, and be the likeliest victims of it, and that’s a problem with a lot of causes that should be addressed in a lot of ways. But crime is pretty rare. Not rare like being a professional hockey player is rare. But rare. Most people, white or minority, don’t do it at all.
That’s what I remembered when I began my recovery five years ago. In the preceding 25 years, I’d crossed paths with thousands and thousands of black people (including, obviously, those who became friends). Over the same stretch I’d also crossed paths with thousands and thousands of people wearing hoodies (there was surely some overlap). I got very, very unlucky one time. Adding it all up, I figured my odds of avoiding a repeat of that night are pretty good.
And that’s ultimately what I want everyone, but particularly future victims of crime, to take away from my story. You can’t tell victims how they should react to the crimes committed against them. That’s wrong, and anyhow it’s largely out of their control. But to anyone whose instinct is to crouch defensively and treat everyone who resembles their attackers like criminals, I’m living proof that there’s another way.
Everyone who’s ever shot me was black and wearing a hoodie. There just aren’t any reasonable inferences to draw from that fact.
Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.