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Seriously Injured Gunshot Victims Face Long Road to Recovery

Thanks to improvements in medical care, more victims recover from gunshot wounds, which once might have been fatal.

However, the growing survival rate does not tell the full story about victims’ experiences. Some face significant physical and emotional damage.

A little more than a year ago, a gunman shot Todd Drouillard in the back. He says two men confronted him in the alley outside his home, on Milwaukee’s northwest side. They wanted his cell phone. The last thing he remembers, before waking up in the hospital, was trying to run.

“The bullet went through my spine. The bullet went through my stomach, it hit my pancreas, and it was stuck in my abdomen, they performed three surgeries on me, I had feeding tubes.”

Drouillard was 20 years old. For nearly a month and a half, he lived at Froedtert Hospital.

“It was very hard at first, because at first I was just laying in the bed and I couldn’t feel nothing. I couldn’t really move, I couldn’t do much.”

Eventually, therapists helped Drouillard learn to move again. He recalls spending countless hours adjusting to his new circumstances.

“I had to do physical therapy, recreational therapy, and they taught me how to get dressed, shower, and do everyday things.”

Today, the 21-year-old can walk short distances with the aid of leg braces and a walker. But most of the time, he depends on a wheelchair.

Drouillard did much of his rehabilitation work here, in the gym at Froedtert’s Spinal Cord Injury Center.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
Occupational Therapist Angela Marzalkowski works with gunshot victims and others who pass through the Spinal Cord Injury Center at Froedtert Hospital.

“We have a couple people working on some pulleys, we encourage people to enhance their muscles that are working,” says Angela Marszalkowski, an occupational therapist. She says patients spend up to three hours a day in therapy, often focusing on small tasks, such as putting on a pair of socks. “They have to learn how to do things from scratch, and it’s frustrating.”

Marszalkowski says frustration isn’t the only emotion she witnesses when working with gunshot victims. Some don’t seem to grasp the importance of rehab.

“They’re not necessarily wanting to get up at 8:00 a.m. to get dressed. There are some times where the younger kids, motivation-wise, don’t have the same qualities as someone who has been working and has had jobs, and knows how to set a goal and achieve it.”

Patients can also struggle to accept what’s happened to them, and some are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Terri deRoon-Cassini. She’s a clinical psychologist for Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin.

deRoon-Cassini says it’s not unusual for PTSD symptoms to emerge during the hospital stay.

“You have individuals who are in an unknown environment in the hospital. And the way our rooms are set up, is that nurses and everybody can access a cabinet that passes through into the patient’s room. So the patients will hear the nurses in there, making noises and everything, and then they’ll jump, they’re easily startled, all of the sudden their heart rate is increasing, they’re sweating.”

deRoon-Cassini says the patients can meet with counselors. Also during the hospital stay, staffers begin arranging the logistics of going home.

Social Worker Kim Burie spends much of her day on the phone. She determines the supports spinal cord injury patients need, and how to pay for them. Burie says gunshot wounds most commonly occur in low-income neighborhoods and many victims have sparse financial resources.

“A big part of it is my role to look at: are they eligible for Medicaid or any of the state insurance, and if so, initiate getting that application done, getting that going.”

Burie says finding money for something as basic as a wheelchair ramp, can be challenging.

“Private insurance would not pay for a ramp. That would be the patient and the family responsibility. And a lot of times we have people who are renting, and some of the funding sources we have are dependent upon the patient or the family owning the house.”

Todd Drouillard – the young man shot over his cell phone – says he’s fortunate. His parents moved him and his brothers to a house that accommodates his wheelchair.

“We put ramps, we made sure the doors are wide enough for me to get through, rearranged the furniture so I could sit in the chairs.”

And Drouillard has not needed a special vehicle for transportation. He’s able to hoist himself into his mother’s car, and uses a “slide board” to get in and out of his dad’s truck.

“It’s just a board that’s about five feet, I think, in length, it’s really smooth, and you can move right across gaps.”

Adapting to his surroundings was just the beginning of Drouillard's challenges after he left the hospital. The bullet also changed the trajectory of his life.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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