Baltimore is one of only nine cities where gun violence is the leading cause of spinal cord injuries.
The fallout from spinal cord injuries related to gun violence is a lifetime of medical challenges and what some call an epidemic: black men in wheelchairs, paralyzed from being shot on the streets of Baltimore.
“I see it especially at appointments at the hospital and in my passing. I see it all the time. It’s crazy,” said Tavon Harrington.
“It was at a cookout. Someone started shooting and I got hit,” Harrington said.
The cookout at Douglass Homes at Caroline and Orleans streets took place in May 2010 when Harrington went home for a visit from a residential facility for at-risk young people. One bullet destroyed the new life he had been building.
“I got shot in the back and it hit my spine,” Harrington said.
Harrington stayed in Shock Trauma for one month, then went to Good Samaritan Hospital for rehab for three months. The bullet fragments remain in his back.
“I’m totally devastated. It took a while to get used to,” Harrington said.
“I’ve been struck for the last decade or two about the incredible number of young, predominantly African-American men who otherwise look totally healthy who are driving around in wheelchairs,” said Dr. Peter Beilenson, who served 13 years as Baltimore’s health commissioner.
Beilenson teaches a course at Johns Hopkins University called Politics, Policy and Public Health. The course touches on the public health and social ills of the city.
“In most of the country, spinal cord injuries are predominantly caused by auto accidents and falls being the No. 2 reason, and about 15 percent due to violence, but here in Baltimore, the leading cause of spinal cord injury leading to paralysis is violence,” Beilenson said.
People like Harrington will need a lifetime of care and assistance with daily living, from eating and bathing to caring for bodily functions, and changing catheters, tubes and bladder bags.
The cost is staggering. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons said, over a lifetime, the costs to treat these victims is $2.2 million — much of that coming from taxpayers.
“For the entire individual in the first year following spinal cord injury, it ranges from about $200,000 to $750,000 for healthcare costs and rehab costs,” Beilenson said.
Patients are prone to skin infections, pneumonia and more. Harrington goes in and out of the hospital for various infections.
“Last year was a bad year. I was in and out of the hospital 14 times. This year, I did good, like, my third time in the hospital,” Harrington said.
But this year remains a bad one for many other reasons. As Harrington sat at the hospital waiting to see his doctor, he told 11 News the night before that his childhood friend became one of this year’s murder victims.
“He was a good dude. (He didn’t) get into no trouble. I don’t understand,” Harrington said. “It’s heartbreaking to see a lot of people I know dying. It’s traumatizing, and it’s getting out of control.”
For now, Harrington is committed to living life the best way he can, rolling with what comes along. He said he does have some feeling in his legs and he hopes he will be able to move them again one day.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 3,000 people are left paralyzed by a bullet from a handgun each year in the United States.
By Lisa Robinson