Michael’s Story: A Tale of Resilience in the Wake of Being Shot

— by Aviva Perlo

As I began to write this week, a wave of emotion hit me. Michael is a survivor of gun violence, and the timing now matched the mass shootings and homicides in Newtown, Connecticut. With profound empathy, concern, and a call to action; I share Michael’s story and some thoughts about gun violence. May families and communities from Connecticut, to Columbine, to Virginia Tech, to Arizona, to Louisiana, to Texas, Chicago, Philadelphia, and communities everywhere that are affected by gun violence, receive some sense of comfort and hope for better days.

More after the jump.
Michael and I met through the synagogue where I grew up. His father was the head Rabbi of nearly 5000 congregants for almost 30 years. (Yes, everything is big in Texas.)

Michael was shot 31 years ago. Michael was a student at the University of Texas at Austin when he and his girlfriend, Sharon, headed back to the dorm one night after studying organic chemistry. He noticed the gas gauge was on empty. Michael pulled into a convenient store, borrowed $2 from Sharon for gas, and ran inside to pay. “On one side of the door, I had a regular life, and another side of the door, I was just another statistic of crime” Michael said. The store was in the midst of a robbery. The thieves took Michael in the back to dispense of him so he could not be a witness to their crime. Michael was shot in the back of head, and no one thought he would survive. “The police and paramedics transferred my case to homicide,” explains Michael. “When the neurosurgeon saw I was still alive in the morning, he told my parents there was a 100% chance that I would be a vegetable. Obviously I beat the odds,” he said smiling.

“My dad told Sharon to leave and told her that the doctors said I’d be a vegetable” Michael said. “He told her, you are young, go live your life.” But Sharon replied, “Michael is my life.” She stayed in the hospital that day, and has stayed for decades. Michael and Sharon married years later and had a healthy child together who recently graduated college.

I asked Michael about his recovery. He explained:

My Dad has a true saying. Mile by mile is a trial. Inch by inch is a cinch. Yard by yard is hard. I was getting better slowly. The neurosurgeon told my family I was stable enough to be transferred to a hospital in Houston. A doctor came in my room there and told me I was not going back to college and to focus on more realistic goals. I thought to myself: Who are you to tell me what I cannot do. You don’t even know me. I made it my goal then and there to return to college one day. It was not easy. Life is not easy. I was paralyzed and had to learn to do small things like tie my shoe with one hand. A year and a half later I returned to University of Texas. I had to go to a lot of therapy. But four years later, I graduated with honors.

Michael worked hard to relearn some basic skills of reading, writing, walking, talking, tying his shoes, and more. He obtained a masters degree in counseling. He said his family was tremendously supportive, plus people of all faiths that he did not even know were praying for him. Today Michael works with individuals and families who have survived trauma, mainly head injuries. “I’m on the trauma floor… to help people cope with head injury and spinal chord injury. I do emotional support which means sitting in hospitals and waiting rooms to put a smile on peoples’ faces” says Michael.

One time Michael met a mother in a hospital waiting room whose teenage son had also been shot in the back of the head like Michael. She sat in desperation wondering if he would survive.  Then Michael walked in, introduced himself, sat with her, and gave her living proof of the possibility of hope. I asked Michael if he receives certain reactions from people due to his speech or his walk. Michael is partially paralyzed and walks with two uneven legs. The bullet modified his speech. “Oh is there a way that I walk?” he asked. I froze. He smiled. I laughed in relief. “I use humor religiously” he said, “It is very important” he said. We spoke briefly about the difference between survivors with visible and invisible affects. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a survivor without any signs of it because this is all I know” Michael said. I wondered if his presence raises awareness for others in ways that differ for those who have survived trauma without visible signs of it. “The most important thing,” Michael said, “is to keep hope alive. Do the best with what you have. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Although gun violence has become a public health epidemic in America today, there is hope. Much is preventable if we can modify our thinking about safety and violence. The question is not are you pro gun or not? Gun violence involves many factors: managing emotions, lobbyists, access to weapons, access to health care, access to medicine, economic disparities, domestic violence, bullying, desires for instant gratification, fear, desires for security, critical thinking about what actually protects us, keeping kids creatively occupied after-school, establishing connections with friends, neighbors, faith groups, and more. It requires thinking beyond black and white binary terms. “I learned that anger is not necessarily a bad thing” said Michael, “It is energy. It depends on what you do with it, how you direct it. We have to use our energy for the good” said Michael.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sandra Bloom writes in her book Creating Sanctuary:

There is a large body of knowledge available about the effects of trauma, the necessary ingredients for healthy child development, [normative] processing of memory and emotions, the importance of human relationships…, problem solving,… and mediation. Unfortunately however, few people know… this. We spend too much time consuming news tabloids and over-sensationalizing… rather than looking at the complex nature of human behavior and interrelatedness that we have with one another….

Jewish tradition says that we are not permitted to hold a knife while praying because prayer is meant to extend our lives, and knives cut our days short. Some commentators extrapolate the same for guns, that guns too must be separate from prayer because they slice our days. Exceptions are made for soldiers in the line of duty. If only we could see that the ‘line of duty’ or the militia as stated in the Second Amendment is separate from America’s streets or schools or shopping centers or homes. These are not the militia. These are the spaces where we are meant to build healthy, beautiful lives. May we learn to value life and to separate the profane from the sacred.