Exit Wounds
3:00 pm
Fri February 1, 2013

Bullets Leave Lasting Emotional, Physical Scars

This week, as national leaders consider ways to reduce gun violence, we’re reporting on the hundreds of people in Milwaukee living with gunshot injuries.

WUWM’s Ann-Elise Henzl talked to three men with spinal cord injuries, about how a bullet changed their lives.

Kevin Miller and Harvey Ross have become friends, bonding, in part, over their spinal cord injuries.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

All three of the wounded men now live in wheelchairs. Todd Drouillard was shot in 2011, as two men struggled to steal his cell phone. The incident knocked the 20-year-old’s plans off track.

“I went to Whitewater for a year, then I came back home and I started working. I was going to go apply to another college, and then I got shot.”

Drouillard had to quit his two jobs, and instead, spend a month and a half in the hospital. Since his release, he’s continued with physical therapy and adapting to his circumstances, although he does not know if they’re permanent.

“The doctor says I had a 50-50 chance of everything coming back, or me still being a paraplegic.”

Drouillard says he rarely thinks about the night he was shot. Instead, he focuses on his future, and intends to return to school. He says while the shooting disrupted his life, he’s essentially the same person, and he does not want people to treat him differently, simply because he uses a wheelchair.

“Everybody’s always willing to help, but we want to do it ourselves. We want to be able to be independent and be normal.”

Harvey Ross agrees: when you’re in a wheelchair, some people assume you can’t do anything. Yet, he says he also encounters people who underestimate his struggles. He describes a conversation with a co-worker.

“She just had surgery on her knee and she’s using a wheelchair, and we were talking the other day (and she said), ‘I know how you feel now.’ And I shook my head, like, ‘yeah, yeah.’ But I thought to myself though, ‘in a few weeks you’re going to be walking around again.’ So I, you know, appreciate the sympathy and whatever, but no, you don’t know how I feel.”

Nineteen years ago, when Ross was a teenager, he lost the use of his legs, and lost partial use of his hands. He says the father of a girl he was dating shot him, in an argument. Ross says the damage and pain and depression that followed were so severe, that for months, he wanted to die.

“Then one day I was just sitting at home, my mother came downstairs and she was like, ‘is this it?’ And I was like, ‘what do you mean?’ She was like, ‘this is all you’re going to do with your life -- do nothing?’ And I thought about it, and I said to myself ‘well, if I do do that, then I’m letting the whole disability and being shot defeat me.’”

Ross says he rallied, after going to a support group for people with spinal cord injuries, at Froedtert Hospital. He says he met young men who inspired him.

“Just hearing their stories and seeing that they’re still out living life, and stuff like that.”

The former three-sport athlete also found a new outlet for his physicality: wheelchair rugby. At a recent practice, Ross and about a dozen others raced across the gym floor.

“I just like the competitive spirit and actually just competing against other guys, and just the whole thing of team-building, to try to make your team better, and to win.”

Ross now works to motivate others with spinal cord injuries. He teaches independent living skills, and runs support groups. One of the first people he mentored was Kevin Miller. Carjackers shot him. Like Ross, Miller sunk into a deep depression. He recalls struggling to reach a cup of ice chips in the hospital, after losing the use of both legs and one arm.

“And I couldn’t move, and I busted out in tears, it was like a fingertip away from me and I just couldn’t get it. That was my worst day since I first got shot, my worst day, I cried the whole day, just knowing I had to ask somebody to do something I couldn’t do for myself.”

Miller says he had given up hope, until he met other men living full lives in wheelchairs.

Through therapy, he regained the use of both arms, and then focused on what he could do with his upper body. That included dragging himself and his chair up the stairs at home before a ramp was installed and, teaching himself to drive by pushing the pedals with a stick.

“My kids walked in the alley and found me an old stick from a tree, and we took it and drove around. It took me about 15 minutes, I rolled them down the alley, I rolled and I rolled, and then I said, ‘hey y’all, I’m going to try this corner.’ The first corner became two blocks, then two blocks – I’m at my sister’s house (and she said), ‘what you doing -- who letting you drive?’ But she was proud.”

Now the 44-year-old drives a car equipped with hand controls.

While Miller is proud of himself for living independently and raising two daughters, he admits things are not always easy. And he has worries about health problems, as a result of his disability. Yet he says they’re not powerful enough to beat him.

“It’s more of how strong you is as a person, and what you want to do with it. It will depress you and it will bring you down, if you let it.”