Baltimore's street violence creates an epidemic of spinal cord injuries

Gunshot wounds rival accidents, war to put youths in wheelchairs

July 30, 2000|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Luther Bridges had it made. Just out of prison, where he had served time for stealing, he was earning $1,000 a week delivering heroin to an East Baltimore stash house. Bridges, nicknamed "Buddy Ice," had stylish clothes and pretty women. The work couldn't have been easier.

Then, in an alley where addicts were lined up 20 deep, Bridges got into a fight with a customer who pushed to the front. The man fired first. Bridges crumpled to the ground and watched a streetlight fade.

"I wake up in the hospital, and everyone's crying - my mother, stepfather, friends," he said. "They're all crying tears. I'm crying too, but I don't know why. Then, I realize I can't move my legs."

Bridges, 27, is one of hundreds of victims in an epidemic of spinal cord injuries that has made the sight of young men in wheelchairs a familiar part of the Baltimore landscape.

You see them rolling with traffic, sitting on corners, waiting for buses - even dragging their chairs up and down rowhouse steps.

Though there are plenty of innocent victims, increasing numbers who suffer paralyzing wounds were shot in drug deals gone bad.

Police routinely spot young men in wheelchairs who, until recently, were buying or selling drugs on healthy legs. Some don't let their injuries stop them, dealing drugs from their chairs.

Doctors say they've treated paraplegics who've returned to the streets and come back as quadriplegics.

Few, it seems, enter the trade without knowing that, someday, they might spend the rest of their lives paralyzed.

"The way I see it," said Bridges, "no one sells drugs without knowing you can get locked up, stuck up or shot. Anything can happen."

Nationally, gunfire accounts for about a quarter of the 10,000 paralyzing injuries that occur each year. About 60 percent result from car crashes or falls.

But Baltimore is one of nine drug-infested cities where gun violence is the leading cause of spinal cord injury, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association in Silver Spring.

"If you were to look around the streets of Baltimore around the turn of the last century and saw a young man in a wheelchair, you'd say it was probably tuberculosis or polio," said Dr. Edward Cornwell, chief of adult trauma at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "In mid-century, you'd say it was wartime.

"Now, it's interpersonal violence on the streets. If you saw a kid in a wheelchair now and asked him to lift his shirt, you'd see the scar."

Youth and poverty are common denominators among those paralyzed by bullets. Researchers who have studied the demographics of gun violence say the victims are typically 15 to 19 years old, African-American or Hispanic, poorly educated and uninsured.

As a consequence, the cost to taxpayers is huge.

With Medicaid paying most of the bill, a person who is paralyzed from the waist down accumulates almost $200,000 in medical expenses the first year and $20,000 every year after that, according to the Spinal Cord Information Network, a national clearinghouse in Alabama.

At that rate, Buddy has accumulated more than $300,000 in medical bills, all borne by taxpayers.

Higher cost of quadriplegia

For a person paralyzed from the neck down, the costs are far greater: $340,000 to $530,000 in the first year, $39,000 to $95,000 every succeeding year. For quadriplegics on breathing machines, the cost is higher.

Through fortitude or luck, some who suffer spinal injuries have learned to live independently and hold down jobs. But others will always need help doing such simple things as dressing or bathing.

The sudden loss of independence can take an emotional toll: Depression and substance abuse run higher among the paralyzed.

Most victims lose control of their bladder and bowels and must schedule their lives around catheter changes and other procedures, or risk fatal complications.

Patients who don't remember to shift positions every half-hour or so are subject to pressure sores that can grow as large as footballs and reach to the bone.

Such infections have sent Bridges to a succession of hospitals and nursing homes. Last month, he spent four days in the hospital after a fever that stemmed from a long-festering ulcer on his leg.

The sore might have been there for weeks - but his paralyzed legs and feet are incapable of producing the warning signals of pain.

Bridges, who is 5 feet tall and has a delicate, willowy frame, was 21 and living with his mother in East Baltimore when he was shot.

When he left prison, he worked briefly at a car wash but ditched the job when some prison buddies made him a "lieutenant" in their drug ring.

In the morning, he dropped bags of heroin at a "stash house" where the dealers were supplied. At night, he retrieved what was left.

One night in 1993, on his way to close up shop, Bridges veered through an alley near the corner of Ashland and Port streets in East Baltimore. He found trouble.

Addicts who had peacefully lined up to get their fix were yelling at a man who had breached etiquette and jumped to the front.

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