Disabled victim asks, 'What do I do now?'

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 10, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The state of Maryland is now telling Julia Hammond to make it on her own. That she cannot move her body is no longer the state's concern. Money is all. The Julia Hammonds around here will have to look elsewhere for help.

Hammond has been paralyzed from the waist down now for nearly 16 years. It was New Year's Eve, 1975, when everything changed. A carry-out place in Aberdeen. A gunman enters. Shots are fired.

Hammond was 23 then. Now she sits in a wheelchair in her Cockeysville home, slender, medicated, a history of surgery and suffering surrounding her, and she talks about the moment her life changed and about the burden the state of Maryland is threatening to put on her shoulders.

''Joe and I had been dating about four months,'' she says.

She means Joseph Lee, who owned the Aberdeen carry-out back then. She'd gone to the store about 9 that night, and they were waiting for an employee to show up so she and Lee could spend New Year's Eve more festively.

About 10:30, a customer came to the cash register with a bottle of wine. Then, without a word, he pulled out a gun. He shot Lee in the face, and then he shot Hammond in the face. Hammond remembers falling behind the counter and holding the side of her head. Blood was everywhere.

''Get up,'' the gunman yelled. He yanked Lee to his feet and forced him to open the cash register. There wasn't much money inside. The gunman seemed to know there was a safe in the back.

''Joe had a .357 Magnum in the store,'' Hammond remembers. ''It belonged to a friend, a policeman in Ocean City, who'd given it to him. The robber found it. He made Joe give him the money out of the safe, and then he told us to get down on the floor.''

Lee lay face-down, and Hammond was ordered to lie atop him, also face-down. The gunman fired the .357 three times. Hammond's spinal cord was severed. The gunman ran into the night and has never been caught.

''Get up,'' Lee said, still lying on the floor. But Hammond could not move. Get up, he said again. Hammond remembers him finally rolling her over, and the blood pouring out of her, and still she could not move.

Soon there were police in the store, and medics, and they were asking Hammond for her family's telephone number. She remembers twice, maybe three times, they returned to her and said, ''That's not the right number.''

Finally, someone realized her family lived in Baltimore and it was a long-distance call from Aberdeen.

The medics pulled her out of a pool of blood and took her to Harford Memorial Hospital. The doctors said she'd have to go to shock trauma in Baltimore, but they couldn't use a helicopter. The sky was too dangerous, filled with frozen rain.

She remembers the ambulance ride to Baltimore, and the siren blaring the whole way, and then she remembers her family looking so horrified at the hospital, when they saw her face covered with bandages.

In a way, Julia Hammond is saying now, she's had it easier than some people. The shots from the gunman completely severed her spinal cord, meaning she feels nothing at all from the waist down. No pain, just nothing at all.

''I know some people,'' she says, ''who have had spinal cord injuries where it's not completely severed, and they have terrible pain they have to live with.''

For 16 years, she's counted herself fortunate one more way: The state of Maryland had compassion for her. Twenty-two years ago, the state declared it had a moral obligation to the innocent victims of criminal attacks and would assist with medical payments, a policy that has helped keep Hammond alive since that night in Aberdeen.

''Hospital stays, operations, prescriptions, wheelchairs, all the medical bills I've had, which have been unbelievable, the state has paid,'' she said. ''I've spent more time in hospitals the last 16 years than I've spent out of hospitals.''

But now the state is saying she'll have to pay her own bills. As part of the governor's proposed budget cuts, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board would be eliminated and so would help for victims of crimes.

The stomach problems she has, the kidney problems, the high blood pressure, the depression, the circulation problems, all resulting from the gunshot, will have to be paid for out of Hammond's own pocket, or a limited amount from Medicaid, or not at all.

''She's not alone,'' a Criminal Injuries Compensation Board official said yesterday. ''We probably average about 85 new people every month. Paraplegics, quadriplegics, all kinds of people who can't take care of themselves. But they'll have to now.''

Hammond has tried working full time, but the physical cost is too high. She works part time for the National Spinal Cord Injury Hotline, but the pay doesn't begin to cover her medical bills.

''So I sit here now,'' she says, ''and I think, 'OK, what do I do now?' And the answer is, I just don't know.''

Nor do a lot of other innocent victims, just like Julia Hammond, for whom the state of Maryland once expressed compassion but now wishes to close all accounts.

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