When I was ten years old, my best friend died from an asthma attack.
We had spent the day at an amusement park. It was one of the most humid days of that year, July 3rd, 2011, and she’d been struggling to breathe.
After we drove her home, she had the asthma attack, and her dad couldn’t get her help in time. The next day my mom got a call that she had passed away.
I took it hard. I knew she had asthma, and I had been able to provide her with some assistance in the past, but I wasn’t there this time. I always felt like maybe if I had been there, I could have done something.
Five years later my mother and I heard about a gunshot-wound first aid class. I was immediately intrigued.
And you might be thinking, Gunshot-wound first aid class? But it’s not strange, because the lack of resources on the South and West Sides of Chicago make having this information a necessity. It’s the unfortunate reality.
I was interested because there would be people who looked like me, teaching me skills to empower myself.
Better yet, they included asthma awareness in the workshop as well. The goal was to create widespread urban preparedness for any situation.
I sank my teeth in. I knew the importance of this training, and I paid attention. I was completely engaged with being a UMedics member.
So I knew how to do an occlusive dressing with a credit card and apply pressure with a scarf. But I was also still a regular teenager.
The following summer on a Saturday, I’m coming home from my very first date. I was fifteen at the time. It’s just a regular day, two or three in the afternoon. I come inside, I turn on the TV. Nothing major.
And then I hear shots fired. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.
They are ringing through my apartment. I can’t believe it. You hear all the time about gun violence in Chicago, but I’d never come face-to-face with it like that before. But immediately I step into my role as a UMedics member and say, “What can I do?”
Step one: be aware of your surroundings. The first step to being a first-aid responder is prioritising my own safety. I peer out my window so I can see what is going on. I see people running from the gas station across the street toward my apartment.
I’m trying to see if I’m in any position to help. I never planned on going outside, because I didn’t want to put myself in harm’s way. But it turns out I don’t have to.
Because literally seconds later, a young man flies through my back door, holding his neck, bleeding, saying over and over again, “I’ve been shot. Can you help me? I’ve been shot. Can you help me?”
I take a step back, and I just say, “Yes.”
And from the moment I say yes, it is autopilot. I lay him down on the floor. I begin talking to him. The first thing I do is ask for consent to call 911, because that’s one thing we emphasise in UMedics training – you cannot assume anything. You have to ask, because people are their own person.
So I ask him if I can call 911. He says yes. I get on the phone and tell them where I’m at. They’re like, “Okay. We’re sending an ambulance.” I’m like, “Perfect.”
So then I go back to the guy. I’m talking to him. I’m asking him questions about who he is. I want him to feel safe. And he’s telling me his name: Peta. He’s telling me how old he is: nineteen. Where he’s from: another apartment complex that was pretty close to mine. He tells me he wants to go to college.
I’m getting to know him, and at the same time I’m applying pressure. I’m trying to keep the blood in his body, to get the blood to clot. Once I have somewhat of a stable bandage going, I’m taking this all in, and I realise I’m fifteen years old, I’m home alone with a man who’s been shot in the neck.
I should probably call my mom.
I pick up the phone, and I guess you can call it mother’s intuition, because as I’m about to press call, the phone rings, and it’s my mom. I’m like, “Mom. You won’t believe this. There’s this man... gunshots fired... first aid...”
She’s like, “Are you serious?”
I say, “Mom, why would I lie about this?”
And she’s just like, “Okay, okay, I’m on my way.”
I resume treating Peta. And now I’m doing a closer examination of what exactly is going on. He has two wounds – an entrance wound and an exit wound. One is in his neck, and then it goes up through his jaw. Pretty bad, but he’s here, and so he’s fine so far.
I’m talking to Peta. I’m trying to keep him conscious.
He is extremely eager to live, which I admire. That puts the pressure on me, because I need to be as eager to help him.
And I am.
A few minutes later, my mom walks in the house and looks around like, It’s going down.
She’s looking at me. I’m applying pressure.
She says, “Is there anything I can do?”
I’m like, “No.”
And for a few moments, it’s calm. Peta’s calming down. His blood is starting to clot, so the bleeding is not so drastic.
But then, a few minutes later, people start to flood into my house – bystanders, I guess, who had seen what was going on. A commotion forms in my apartment, and it’s a lot to deal with, but I’m putting my full attention on Peta.
My mom does a really good job controlling the crowd. She’s making sure people are not recording Peta, because that’s a violation of his privacy. She’s keeping the people trying to question him away so that he’s not getting more stressed out. And the only reason she is able to do that is because she got the same training I did. So she knows exactly how to help me in the situation. I’m taking care of Peta’s body, and she’s taking care of Peta’s surroundings.
Then the police come. My mom is apprehensive of the police being there, because it’s no secret that black and brown people are not trusting of the police. They make us feel anxious, like we have something to prove.
My mom doesn’t want to bring that energy into our apartment. She doesn’t want that energy to affect Peta, most importantly. She doesn’t want that thought process and that anxiousness to overwork him. So she is going back and forth with the police and bickering with them. But eventually she gives up when they threaten to arrest her for not allowing them on her property.
And so eight or nine police officers crowd into our tiny apartment. They are standing over me, watching me apply pressure to Peta, not providing any assistance. (It’s Chicago; they could have been doing something way more important.)
And then, luckily, the fire department gets there. Not the ambulance, the fire department, which gives you a glimpse of what healthcare is like in Chicago – the ambulances don’t come to our communities that fast. My own mother got here first!
So the first fireman comes in to check Peta’s vitals, and I have my hands over his neck, and he says, “Take your hand off of him. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
And me, being a little black girl, I am just like, “Okay.”
I have all these feelings of doubt, and so I reluctantly pull my hand away.
Just as I thought he would, Peta starts bleeding again,
But then the second fireman came in, and he says, “Actually, she needs to put her hand back.”
And I think, I knew that.
I don’t want to be combative. But it is an important moment for me, because it gives me a boost of confidence, like, I know what I’m doing. I feel good. I’m doing something good.
So I keep my hand on his neck, and they are taking his vitals, get- ting ready to transport him. The ambulance arrives, and a few minutes later they take him on the gurney and whisk him away.
They had to take him all the way to Northwestern, because we don’t have a trauma centre on the South Side of Chicago.
After that there was still a lot of commotion outside our house. People were looking to me for answers, as if I had anything to do with the actual shooting. It was overwhelming. The news station was there. The police were there.
I remember grabbing my phone, grabbing my keys, locking the door, and making the conscious decision not to engage with anybody, because I didn’t want my story to be sensationalised.
I got in the car with my mom, and she just drove. I zoned out, and I was replaying in my mind what just happened.
Then the car stopped, and I snapped out of my trance, and we were at the beach.
I was like, “My God, what is going on?”
And my mom looked at me, and she said, “Let’s do some yoga.” And so we joined a group of women on the grass doing yoga.
That might seem kind of strange, but for me and my mom it wasn’t. We did things like yoga and meditation.
So she looked at me from her tree position, and she said, “Self-care.”
And I was so grateful to be able to process everything. I took this opportunity to ground myself, because that really happened. It was real.
After that day I resumed my life as a normal teenager. But a few weeks later, I got a call from Peta’s mom, and she said, “You know Peta thinks you saved his life, right?”
Until that moment I had never thought about it like that. I just thought I was in the right place at the right time. I had the right information, and I did the right thing.
I took that opportunity to say, “Hey, Peta. Do you know why I knew how to do what I did? I’m not a superhero. It was because I got this training. And how cool would it be if you had that training? And your parents had that training. And you were able to help somebody you loved who was in this situation?”
He said, “Yes.”
So three months later we were able to train his entire family. About twenty-five people, ranging from small children to seventy-year-olds. I kid you not—a complete multigenerational experience.
You know how in school you learn the plot of a story? And it’s like: expository, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the resolution.
For me, change has its own plot. And it starts with taking action, and getting information, and then sharing that information with somebody else. And so being able to train his family was the experience coming full circle for me. It empowered me. It gave me a lot of confidence.
You hear all the time that children are the future. But I refuse to settle for being the future when I can be right now.
Journey was a member and trainer for Ujimaa Medics, a small, black grassroots health collective, training in urban first aid. She continues to work with other organisations with a philosophy of holistic health for the hood.
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