Grace: After the gunfire, a new battle begins -
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Grace: After the gunfire, a new battle begins

DeJuan Tipler, age 23, woke up in a hospital bed to a one-two punch.

First, he'd been shot.

“I've been shot?!” he said.

Then, his legs. DeJuan's hands were resting on his thighs. Thighs he could not feel.

He heard words like “dislocated hip” and “spinal cord” and “slim.” Slim as in chances of walking.

The implications of this were too much to absorb. His heart dropped. His mind blanked.

“I didn't know what to do,” he said.

Let's pause for a moment and consider this: On the July morning when a bullet ripped into DeJuan's back, five other people were also shot in Omaha. Shootings have become so common that the news didn't make the front page.

In all, 217 people have been shot so far this year in Omaha — so many that we are hardly surprised when it happens, over and over, and usually in the same parts of town.

Sometimes people die — 30 have so far this year. That leaves 187 who have survived, like DeJuan.

Their stories — about what happens next — are often hidden from public view.

DeJuan's story shows what it's like to survive a shooting.

Lying in that room at Creighton University Medical Center, DeJuan couldn't imagine who would want to shoot him or why.

He had no history of being involved in violent crime and says he wasn't wrapped up in the risky gang-banging lifestyle that kills too many of his young, black, male peers (13 dead so far this year in Omaha).

Omaha police said DeJuan wasn't on their radar. His record amounts to a few nonviolent misdemeanor charges.

He was raised by a loving but stickler of a grandmother. Once DeJuan turned 15, she helped him get a special work permit so he could learn the value of a dollar and how to make those dollars add up so he could buy a car, which he did.

DeJuan graduated from Benson High School and eventually landed at Gregg Young Chevrolet as a car porter. It was a good job. DeJuan liked working there. Everyone liked working with DeJuan.

After two years at the dealership, DeJuan bought the third car he has ever owned and the first vehicle he ever bought on credit, in an effort to build a credit history.

The new-to-him Chevy Tahoe was 14 years old.

He bought it in May. He had the windows tinted in June. He washed it every day and vacuumed it once a week.

In July, as DeJuan was driving a friend home early in the morning, someone pulled up to him north of 52nd and Ames. That someone, who has yet to be caught, started firing into the car.

The .40-caliber bullets shattered the passenger-side windows. One grazed the 19-year-old woman in the passenger seat. One struck DeJuan in the middle of his back. It hit his vertebrae, sending bone fragments into his spinal cord. It exited on the right side of his chest.

DeJuan lost control of his prized Tahoe. The SUV veered left across 52nd Street, plowed through a chain-link fence and struck a tree. It was totaled.

DeJuan does not remember any of this.

He does remember waking up to the surreality of being a shooting victim.

The who-would-do-this and the why-would-they-do-it were less urgent questions for DeJuan than this one: What happens next?

DeJuan prayed. He clung to the hopeful words of one doctor who said DeJuan had his youth and vigor going for him. And he placed his faith in his grandmother's sheer will that he would walk.

A week after the shooting, DeJuan still couldn't move his legs. Doctors rated his leg strength as a zero out of 5.

But sensation slowly began to improve. And DeJuan slowly began to make progress.

DeJuan left Creighton after a week and eventually wound up at QLI.

QLI is a beautiful campus of low brick buildings near Immanuel Medical Center. It specializes in treating people with brain and spinal cord injuries. It is much cheaper than a trauma hospital, which can run up to $8,000 a day. It's cheaper than acute rehab centers, which can run up to $2,600 a day. It's arguably cheaper in the long run by helping the injured regain their independence and productivity.

Still, with a tab that can run up to nearly $1,200 a day, this kind of round-the-clock care can add up. DeJuan's grandmother's insurance and Medicaid are footing the bill.

DeJuan got his own room in a house he shares with others with spinal cord injuries. He got a house manager who encouraged him but also cautioned that no one with a spinal cord injury ever gets back to normal.

DeJuan had physical therapists who pushed him. His grandmother, Lynette Tipler, and other family members offered their support.

Eight weeks after being shot, DeJuan started walking — gingerly, and with a lot of help.

On Sept. 2, he could walk 24 feet with two rest breaks if he used a walker and, according to QLI, had “maximal assistance from a physical therapist.”

On Sept. 18, he was walking 85 feet, still with the walker, but with no break and hardly any therapist help.

By Sept. 25, DeJuan was back to work at Gregg Young. He wasn't fetching cars nor working full time.

The dealership at 178th Street and West Dodge Road created a desk job for him and let him work as much as he could, which for now is one day a week for six hours. When DeJuan entered the building one day recently, co-workers lined up to shake his hand, fist-bump him and even gently rib him about how he should put some Bridgestone tires on his wheelchair.

DeJuan can now do stairs. He can now walk hundreds of feet across the QLI campus.

“Every day is getting a little easier,” he says.

Someone gave DeJuan a plaque with the word: “BELIEVE.” He certainly does.

I believe DeJuan will continue to move forward and largely overcome this. But his ordeal comes with a big cost. Not just the $145,700 rehabilitation tab plus DeJuan's emergency care. Or the five months he's been out of the workforce.

One young man, in the prime of his life, was nearly killed. And he's one of 187 fighting back from gunshot wounds this year alone.

That should be a one-two punch for the rest of us.

Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

Copyright ©2014 Omaha World-Herald®. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.

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