There’s no good reason for it, but Neil Snowden blames himself for getting shot this past summer. He said he should have had his head on a swivel, on the lookout for danger.
It had been a fun night. Snowden, 31, was arriving home from a family party with his brother, cousin and a friend.
“We pulled up actually right there,” Snowden said, pointing from his front porch to the street that runs along the side of the apartment building where he lives with his brother.
As he got out of the backseat of the car, Snowden was looking at pictures on his phone from the party.
“You know, you take pictures at the parties and stuff like this. So I was giving my homies some of the pictures instead of paying attention,” Snowden said. “I really take full responsibility for what happened to me because I feel like I should have been paying attention, because I know better.”
As he was getting out of the car, Snowden heard a gunshot. A group inside a passing car was shooting at a man in a lot behind Snowden.
“The first shot hit me in the back of my head. The next shot hit me in the leg, and I hit the ground.”
Snowden had recently taken a class on how to help someone who has been shot, and he was able to use that training to save himself.
“As I was laying down, I’m trying to talk my guys through helping me, like, ‘Put the tourniquet on my leg,’ ” Snowden said. “I was holding my head, I was making sure like I was just really trying to be as calm as possible and breathe through the situation that was going on, you know, praying that I [make] it out.”
Snowden said the first shot felt like a hard punch to the back of his head, and then he felt a sensation like the TV going from color to black and white.
“What was going through my mind at the time was like, ‘Why the f*** me? Why me?’ You know, like, damn, ‘Why couldn’t I dodge that bullet?’ ”
Snowden’s brother fastened a tourniquet on his bleeding leg, and Snowden was able to stay awake until the ambulance arrived.
Snowden is one of 3,343 people who were shot and survived Chicago shootings last year. It’s a number more than four times the 769 who were killed during the city’s startling spike in gun violence.
Those survivors will be scarred for life, mentally and physically, by Chicago’s pervasive gun violence. And they join the thousands more who have been wounded in shootings in years past.
About 50,000 people have been wounded by Chicago gunfire since the turn of the millennium — a group the size of a suburb like Oak Park or Downers Grove — walking through all corners of the city, living their lives. Some are thriving, others are struggling. All of them are marked for life.
Dr. Tanya Zakrison, a trauma surgeon at the University of Chicago, said people wounded in shootings “need psychiatric and psychological follow up for the rest of their lives.”
She said being shot for most people is “the worst experience possible.”
And Zakrison said most of the survivors are not getting nearly the help they need to heal. That’s bad for the individuals and for the city.
“We’re … not tapping into the human potential of so many individuals that have been affected by violence.”
“Tumble and yaw”
Zakrison said the physical trauma bullets inflict on a human body is unique. Bullets “fracture” and “fragment” bones. They rip through skin, lacerate, crush and burn tissue. They can create a “permanent cavity” inside the body, split or shatter organs and “eviscerate body parts.”
The first bullet that hit Snowden is still lodged in the back of his head — a constant, painful reminder of the incident. It’s too dangerous to remove, but there’s a chance it will work its way out on its own.
After the shooting, Snowden was taken to the University of Chicago Trauma Center, where Zakrison works, and spent about two weeks in the hospital.
“My leg was real messed up. I was in pretty bad shape,” Snowden said.
Snowden has a penchant for understatements. He describes his two weeks in a hospital bed recovering from multiple gunshots as “uncomfortable.” There was real concern he might lose his leg or never be able to walk again. He deemed those worries “stressful.”
Snowden said he’s always identified himself as an athlete, prided himself on his fitness. He was part of the Jesse White Tumblers and was a baseball pitcher. He still plays basketball.
For now, that’s largely been taken from him. He can walk, but not very well. He’s recovering with the help of his family.
“I had my time when I did my crying. But, you know, once the tears are over, you’ve got to start thinking about the next best thing,” Snowden said. “I got to start thinking about how I keep pushing forward. I just didn’t want to be bitter about nothing.”
The hardest part is sleeping — it’s impossible to get comfortable with his injuries. Then, when he wakes up, he forgets for a moment about his impairments.
“Like my mind thinks I can do it, but when I try to get up to try to do something, I can’t move as good as [in] my mind,” Snowden said.
The limitations range from big to small. He’s used to being able to just hop out of a car, something he isn’t capable of doing now without time and help. He can’t drive himself anywhere because of the injury to his leg.
“I have to remind myself or otherwise I really still operate like I’m well, [and it] hurts me even more,” Snowden said.
On a bad night, the University of Chicago’s trauma center can see more than 20 gunshot victims like Snowden.
Zakrison said treating the injuries, and recovering from them, is especially challenging because of the unique impact bullets have on a human body.
“Unlike a stab wound, you do not necessarily know where the bullet will end up. So there’s a thing called a tumble and yaw of a bullet where it can tumble and rotate in the tissue on the inside,” Zakrison said. “It can cause so much damage and so much injury across cavities. … It’s really devastating and completely damaging to the patient on anatomic and physiologic level.”
Zakrison was born and educated in Canada, but she came to the U.S. specifically because there are so many gunshot victims here. She believed it was where she could put her skills to the best use.
Besides treating the life-threatening injuries, the team at the trauma center also makes sure to set gunshot victims up with long-term follow-up care. That’s a common need for shooting survivors.
One study of people who had been shot in the legs found victims were still experiencing pain and difficulty functioning two years after being shot. Another study found that shooting survivors frequently have to be readmitted to the hospital long after their initial recovery.
Zakrison said the repercussions of gunshot wounds include severe debilitating chronic pain issues, orthopedic injuries and fractures, injuries to the neurologic system in the brain and lung issues.
“Could it be that I could have almost killed my only daughter?”
Les Jenkins still talks with his daughter about the time he almost lost her.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, I had your life at great risk and didn’t even know it,’” Jenkins said.
Jenkins, 48, was holding his then-5-year-old daughter in his arms, taking her to the store for some sweets before her first day of school, when he was shot on the North Side of Chicago in 1989.
Jenkins said his daughter doesn’t really remember that day 30 years ago.
“But I still struggle with it,” he said of the mental and emotional anguish caused by the shooting.
It is common for shooting survivors to suffer from a multitude of psychiatric problems for years after the traumatic event.
“Trauma changes everything. It disrupts everything,” said Sonya Dinizulu, a psychiatry professor at the University of Chicago.
When Jenkins was shot, he was a member of the Traveling Vice Lords. He’s not part of the gang anymore, but that morning he had on red-and-black Bulls clothing to match his affiliation. He said as he walked up to the convenience store with his daughter, two guys rode up on bikes. He later learned the two guys who approached him were from a different gang and had been instructed to shoot a rival as part of their initiation.
Jenkins said the pair on bikes stopped him and asked him for directions — then one of them started asking if he knew where they could get drugs.
“He wanted me to focus in on him. He was trying to get eye contact with me,” Jenkins said. “I felt the danger in their presence.”
Jenkins said he could tell the young men were not actually seeking directions or drugs.
“One of my first reactions was to engage in dialogue with them, like, ‘Hey, well, I don’t know where you get the … drugs.’ But I’m turning with my daughter the opposite way,” Jenkins said, demonstrating how he turned his body to try and put himself between the two men and his 5-year-old daughter.
“They’re getting closer to me. And I knew I just had to shield myself at that point and shield my daughter. And as I try to turn, that’s when I saw the barrel of the gun.”
Jenkins said the person closest to him pressed the gun to his hip, told Jenkins “don’t say nothing” and then fired. He shot Jenkins two more times in the thighs. The shots dropped Jenkins, and his daughter fell out of his arms
“My daughter went one way. I went another way. Then I’m on the ground. I’m trying to pull myself to get over to her because I see her bleeding,” Jenkins said.
His daughter was not shot, but she had “busted her head when she hit the concrete.”
It took nine months for Jenkins to recover physically from the shooting. He can walk now, but that was not guaranteed initially.
It took much longer for him to recover mentally and emotionally. He said he spent the months, and years, after the shooting filled with a turbulent mix of anger and guilt.
“The choices that I was making led to [me wondering,] ‘Could it be that I’ll never walk again? … Could it be that I could have almost killed my only daughter?’ ”
Even as he thought about the choices that led up to his shooting, Jenkins also felt aggrieved that he had been shot while doing a “good deed” and taking his daughter to school.
He took his anger out on almost everyone around him.
“I was angry. And anyone that wanted to help me, I was angry with them for even wanting to help me,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said he refused to eat and wouldn’t let anyone come into his room. “I remember throwing the food back at my mom, like ‘Get this away from me!’ ”
“I wanted to give up on life.”
Many parents who have been shot struggle to raise their children or maintain family relationships when they’re dealing with their own trauma, said Dinizulu, who runs the University of Chicago’s Stress Trauma and Resilience program.
She said she often helps people struggling with questions like, “How can I be present as a father to my children when I’m dealing with my own trauma, with my own depression?”
She said those post-traumatic stress symptoms then “transmit” to other family members.“It’s the whole family system that’s affected. It’s the whole community that’s affected,” Dinizulu said.
Many survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which can be a “lifelong problem.” And there are other effects beyond PTSD, including clinical depression or personality disorders.
Dinizulu said for Chicago shooting survivors, the challenges are even greater, because most of the people shot in the city come from poor areas already suffering from disinvestment and a lack of resources.
“We just survived a traumatic event and now we have to survive other systems of trauma that have always been plaguing the Black and brown community for hundreds of years.”
Jenkins said he started to get back on track when the mother of his daughter came to see him and asked him, “Are you really going to abandon us?”
Through fits and starts, he said he picked up the pieces of his life and sought to turn things around. He left the gang and now works helping other shooting survivors at the Institute for Nonviolence, a nonprofit that tries to intervene in ongoing street conflicts to prevent shootings and provides services to victims of violence.
“We don’t talk no more”
Ieisha Lowe and her friend both survived a shooting this past summer. But their friendship did not make it.
Lowe, 19, was walking with her friend through a field next to a school near Lowe’s house in West Garfield Park on July 17, 2020, when shots rang out. Two groups were shooting at each other across the park. Lowe and her friend got caught in the middle.
Lowe said her friend was actually walking her home. The two were lost in conversation, reminiscing about funny memories from high school, when a car pulled up.
“I saw the car pulling up, but I didn’t know they were going to start shooting,” Lowe said.
Her “heart dropped” when she heard the first shots, and she felt frozen in place, not sure which way to run.
“They didn’t know [we were there] because it’s so dark in the school lot, it’s a lot of trees so you can hardly see.”
Lowe was shot once in the leg. Her friend was shot twice in the arm. Lowe didn’t even realize she was hit until she looked down and saw blood.
Lowe blames her friend for the fact that she was shot at all. She said when the shots started, her friend “grabbed” her, got behind her and used her as a human shield.
“We don’t talk no more, we don’t socialize.”
The end of that friendship is one of many ways the shooting is still affecting Lowe’s daily life.
Lowe was shot just down the street from where she lives with her mom and aunt, and she’s afraid to be out in her neighborhood.
“I don’t go outside over there. I don’t go outside no more,” Lowe said of her life since the shooting. “That area where I live at, it’s really dangerous. So you have to be careful.”
The impact on Lowe’s personal relationships, and how she views her own neighborhood, exemplify the way a shooting can impact the daily lives of the people who survive.
Studies have found that people with PTSD are much more likely to be unemployed. Young people who are shot are more likely to drop out of school. Alcoholism and drug addiction are higher among people who have suffered severe trauma.
Lowe said the shooting has made her feel like she’s not safe anywhere. She gets nervous when strange cars drive by her house, and she’s not willing to be around people she doesn’t already know because she worries they could be the target of a shooting.
Lowe said she only hangs out with her sister and cousin now. She doesn’t consider herself friends with anyone outside of her family, aside from her best friend who is away at college in Memphis, Tenn.
And Lowe blames herself for the shooting, even though she was an innocent victim caught in the crossfire. She said she should have known not to walk through a field near people she didn’t know. And she wonders if the shooting was karma for her talking back to her mom and getting in trouble at school.
Studies have shown that trauma can have a negative effect on relationships and can often lead to feelings of guilt.
Dinizulu said trauma can lead to “negative alterations in cognition, meaning the way we think about things.”
“Trauma makes people think that they are to blame,” Dinizulu said.
Studies have shown that trauma, like being shot, can actually rewire a person’s brain and change things like how memories are processed.
And Dinizulu said it’s common for a traumatic event to cause a split between people who experience it. She said it makes sense for Lowe to lash out at her friend who got behind her during a terrifying moment, rather than considering the big picture problems that put them both in that position in the first place.
“This is not normal. This doesn’t happen in every single neighborhood in America.”
“There’s a lot of lip service”
Lowe, Snowden and Jenkins are part of a huge population of shooting survivors in Chicago.
Experts say more needs to be done to help them.
Dinizulu said that starts with trying to prevent gun violence in the first place, and understanding that many of the people committing acts of violence are often victims themselves.
The fact there are tens of thousands of gunshot survivors living in Chicago has a profound impact on the city. But Dinizulu said she’s not sure that people are really aware of the impact.
She said a real reckoning with the thousands of people maimed and traumatized each year would prompt radical change aimed at undoing decades of systemic racism and disinvestment. Instead she sees “a lot of lip service” about poverty and trauma, but no action that even begins to match the scope of the problem.
New research from the gun safety organization Everytown shows Chicago is not alone in its battle against this epidemic.
Every day in America, more than 230 people sustain a nonfatal gun injury, according to the report.
The researchers concluded that those wounded by gunfire make up “an enormous portion” of gun violence, “but they have not been an integral part of the conversation” about it.
Giving more attention to those who do not die would alter policies and suggest new solutions, according to the Everytown report.
Zakrison, the U of C trauma surgeon, said a reckoning with the untold pain and suffering would force society and the government to provide more resources for gunshot survivors, specifically ongoing mental health care.
“The country [needs] to realize that they really have to help these patients on a psychological and psychiatric level so they can become functioning individuals in society again,” Zakrison said. “You can’t hold a job down if you have PTSD. You can’t go to school if you have PTSD. You can barely go to the store and get food because you’re very frightened of leaving the home.”
“It’s frustrating that really we have fallen short as a society, I would argue, in terms of recognizing the mental health implications and ramifications of firearm violence.”