Young victim asks, `Why me?'

Calverton Middle student endures painful recovery after surviving stray bullet that tore into her abdomen

Sun Follow-up

May 27, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

Sitting upright and alert on her hospital bed's white sheets, Keonya Christian-Cannon was still in her rainbow-heart pajamas, but she was ready to go home.

Keonya, 14, had been recuperating at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center for more than a month, after a stray bullet struck her as she walked across the street from a park near her West Baltimore home. The bullet tore into her abdomen, just below her rib cage.

She is one of at least 280 people - 50 of them juveniles - who have been shot, but not killed, in the city this year and a painful example of the many who survive, virtually unnoticed by a city struggling with a surging homicide toll.

"It's been miserable," said Keonya, who turned 14 while she was at the hospital and was allowed Thursday to come home, where she will remain bedridden and attached to a feeding tube. "I had to go through all the pain with them sticking me with needles, and I don't like needles."

When asked how she felt about returning to her neighborhood, she said: "I feel it's still safe, but not the way it used to be."

The shooting of Keonya on April 20 stood out because of the acts of a stranger. Angel Burrell saw her in agony and helped put pressure on the wound. It was an unusual act in a city where few people want to get involved.

Even Keonya wasn't so sure what was happening. "She helped me out," she said. "I didn't really want her to touch me because I didn't know her, and I was scared. I thought I was going to die."

For Keonya, the physical and psychological pain of a stray bullet - she was shot during a gang fight in her own neighborhood - will follow her for years.

An eighth grader at Calverton Middle School, the teenager earned high grades and hardly ever missed school, according to her principal. She was involved in an after-school mentoring program called "For Sisters Only," and had scores of friends in the neighborhood.

Now, she is forced to take a daily regimen of medications, some to prevent blood clotting, others to help manage the pain. She relies on the feeding tube attached to her left side, which bypasses her bullet-scarred pancreas, to deliver nutrients to her body. Eating solid foods is doable, but difficult.

She weighs 89.3 pounds, a loss of 15 while in the hospital. And, because of her diet restrictions, fatty foods are off-limits for a while as doctors try to give her pancreas a chance to heal.

Before she left the hospital Thursday afternoon, Keonya said she had been outside, for fresh air, only twice during her hospital stay. She watched a lot of television, though her favorite channels - BET, MTV, and Disney - weren't available.

And perhaps the hardest part of sitting in a hospital room all day was that it lacked Internet access. With a smile, Keonya said she couldn't wait to get home, so she could begin surfing the Web and communicating with friends through MySpace, a popular Web site for staying in touch with friends.

Her daily life for more than a month in the hospital was about sitting in bed, watching TV, sleeping, receiving visitors and getting poked and prodded by doctors and nurses, even in the middle of the night. More than two weeks later, she started feeling well enough to start keeping a journal. Her first entry - dated May 9, 2007 - reads:

"Dear Journal - I am writing to let out my feelings, but right now the day that this happened I was so scared I thought I was going to die. So as I was rushed to the hospital, a lot of thoughts were running through my head, things like, `I can't believe this happened to me. Why me?' But then I thought, things happen for a reason and in the long run, I will understand why. Well, that's all for now. I'll write again later."

Dr. James Haan, the surgeon who operated on Keonya the day of the shooting, said juvenile trauma victims are often transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital, which has a pediatric intensive care unit. But because of the girl's low blood pressure and proximity to Shock Trauma, emergency workers decided to bring her to the closer hospital.

"It was a very busy day," Haan recalled. "We had quite a few gunshot [victims] that day."

Haan said the bullet was small, though he hesitated to estimate its caliber. It had punched through her skin, just below her left rib cage, and nicked parts of her liver, bowel and pancreas before resting deep in the muscles of her back - about three or four inches from her spine. Removing the bullet was not possible, he said.

"To take it out would cause a lot of additional bleeding," Haan said.

Haan explained that the bullet had damaged Keonya's pancreas, which produce enzymes that help the body digest food. If he removed the pancreas or a significant portion of it, Keonya would essentially become a young diabetic, with a shortened life span.

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