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Kids who survive shootings face many health challenges. A Sarasota teen shares his story

 Months after he survived a gunshot wound to the head, Aaron Hunter still has doctors' appointments and physical therapy sessions several days a week.
Stephanie Colombini
Months after he survived a gunshot wound to the head, Aaron Hunter still has doctors' appointments and physical therapy sessions several days a week.

Aaron Hunter is having a tough time pushing himself through a leg workout at a physical therapy appointment in Sarasota.

“It burns,” he moaned, lying on a machine that required him to use his legs to thrust his body off a platform.

His physical therapist, Whitney Walker, and mom Erica Dorsey encouraged him to keep going.

Aaron, 13, was exhausted, but his performance was night and day from this summer, when simply walking was a challenge.

Aaron was shot in the head in June.

More kids and teens have been getting injured in Florida in recent years, as gun violence among young people becomes a growing problem nationally. It’s the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., and one of the top in Florida. But even those who survive shootings can face lifelong challenges.

Stephanie Colombini

What happened to Aaron?

According to Aaron, the day he got shot is a blur.

“All I remember is I was picking mangoes with a friend, and then I went to another friend’s house, and then I remember waking up in the hospital,” he said.

Dorsey said her son is a well-behaved kid. He likes football and video games, and eating his favorite foods: quesadillas and McDonald's.

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Sarasota police are still investigating what happened in the June 22 shooting.

But Dorsey thinks she knows: The kids were playing around with a gun. Things went wrong, Aaron got hurt, and then a boy from the neighborhood came knocking on her door in a panic.

“I just didn't believe it at first,” said Dorsey. “But then the kid said, ‘Do you hear those sirens?’ You could hear sirens in the distance. And he said, ‘You hear that? Those are for him, they're coming to pick him up.’ I was like, oh Lord.”

Stephanie Colombini

A helicopter rushed Aaron to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

A team of medical staff trained in trauma care worked to stabilize Aaron, while Dr. George Jallo performed the complex emergency operation. The brain surgeon was shocked to get the call.

“When someone sustains a gunshot wound to the head, either they’re going to die en route; two, there’s probably really nothing for us to do; or three, the call is wrong and it [the bullet] might have just grazed him,” he said.

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But the bullet that struck Aaron entered just above his right ear and was lodged halfway into his brain.

It took hours to control Aaron’s bleeding and brain swelling, and to clear the debris the bullet left — which included fragments, bone and hair, Jallo said.

The surgery went well, but many questions remained.

”I know he's alive, but I don't know if he's going to be able to talk, I don't know if he might not be able to move an arm or leg. Or I don't know if he's going to be able to see out of one eye,” said Jallo, the hospital’s vice dean and physician-in-chief.

Dr. George Jallo was concerned even if Aaron survived his gunshot wound to the head, the injury could still cause permanent damage to his body and mind.
Stephanie Colombini
Dr. George Jallo was concerned even if Aaron survived his gunshot wound to the head, the injury could still cause permanent damage to his body and mind.

Youth gun injuries are up lately

Aaron is one of 15 patients All Children's has treated so far this year for gunshot wounds, up from just five in 2019, according to a hospital spokesperson.

The increase troubles staff like Dr. Chris Snyder, medical director for the pediatric trauma program.

“Certainly we don’t like that. Trauma is one of those specialties where we kind of want to work ourselves out of a job, if you will, of trying to prevent these kinds of injuries,” he said.

Data from the Florida Department of Health shows a recent spike statewide.

The number of residents ages 19 and younger hospitalized with gun injuries jumped about 40% in 2020 from previous years. The figures have started to trend down, but are still much higher than pre-pandemic levels.

These were cases where patients did not die. While most involved assaults and self-harm, many were accidents, like Aaron’s seemed to be. Unintentional gun injuries have also been elevated since 2020.

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Other patients haven't been as fortunate, said Snyder.

“You can imagine if you get like a toddler that, you know, finds grandpa's handgun and if they shoot themselves — we had a case where a toddler was shot through the heart just a few months ago,” he said. “No amount of special equipment or training is going to save the patient at that point.”

Recovering can take a long time

Some research suggests most kids who get shot do survive. But those injuries can cause long-lasting trauma and financial burden.

A study published in November in the journal Health Affairs finds kids with gun wounds are significantly more likely to develop pain, mental health and substance abuse disorders. Survivors’ healthcare spending increased 17-fold. Family members also struggled.

Dorsey can relate. Aaron was in intensive care for about three weeks after his surgery. He was released in July, but months later the injury still dominates their lives.

“It's exhausting because it's like therapy, doctors appointments — it’s the follow-up,” she said.

The bullet damaged Aaron’s vision and caused weakness and balance issues on the left side of his body, which is controlled by the right side of the brain.

He still has a fragment in his brain that Jallo felt was too dangerous to remove because it’s close to a critical blood vessel. Leaving the fragment behind puts Aaron at risk for seizures, so he’s on medication to prevent them.

Stephanie Colombini

A "walking miracle"

Aaron is in school full-time, but four times a week, he has to leave in the middle of the day for physical and occupational therapy.

It’s been a massive transformation, said Whitney Walker, a physical therapist assistant who started working with Aaron six weeks after his surgery.

Traumatic brain injuries can affect the entire body, she said, so Aaron has had to re-train many muscle groups.

“His endurance, he would fatigue pretty quickly after five minutes, and now we’re able to get through a 30-minute session without many complaints of fatigue. He does get tired, but he is able to push through,” Walker said.

Stephanie Colombini

Aaron’s balance has definitely improved. During a recent session, he held his own on a wobbly platform while bouncing a ball off a trampoline. In another exercise, he balanced in a push-up position while trying to steady rubber balls in the center of a disc.

The teen still had moments where discomfort forced him to pause, but he pushed himself to keep going and sometimes opted to increase the difficulty of certain exercises. And he kept Walker and his mom laughing with a sense of humor throughout.

Aaron would like to play football again, but his mom and medical staff say it’s still too soon.

The team at All Children's calls Aaron a “walking miracle” for how well he's recovered.

Dorsey knows her family is blessed.

“I just feel like any chance that I can, I'm going to stand up for the moms whose kids didn't make it, who had to bury their children over something so senseless and so avoidable,” she said.

Dorsey urges parents who own guns to store them safely and educate kids about the harm they can cause.

Aaron said he's staying away from guns, and said other kids should too.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.