Shooting victims live with bullets to survive, thrive
People screamed, car tires squealed and the unmistakable pop-pop-pop of gunfire splintered the night air.
A 14-year-old girl fell to the ground.
“I remember hearing someone scream, ‘Tionna get up, get up, you have to get up,' and I just — I would try, with my arms, but I couldn't get up,” Tionna Lashay, 23, recalled of the night in August 2004 when she was shot at a church carnival in Brighton Heights.
About 110,000 people are shot each year in America, enough to fill Heinz Field twice.
About 75,000 survive.
Fewer are shot, survive and live with the piece of lead that could have taken their life.
Tionna Lashay's is lodged in her spinal cord.
Bad news first
“I didn't understand. Throughout that night, even as they got me ready for surgery in the hospital, I still couldn't understand why I couldn't get up,” Lashay said. “It never dawned on me that I was paralyzed. At 14 years old, I didn't know much about people being paralyzed or what a paraplegic was.”
She awoke from surgery in Allegheny General Hospital, unable to speak because of the tubes snaking into her mouth and nose.
A nurse gave her a marker and dry erase board to communicate. A doctor entered the room and asked what she wanted first: The good news or the bad?
“I always go with the bad news first,” Lashay said, “because then the good news can make me feel better.
“He said I was a paraplegic and that I had a missing kidney, that a bullet had gone through my kidney and was still in my spine, that it shattered my spinal cord.”
And the good news?
“That I was going to live.”
Surgery to remove the bullet could result in further paralysis or death, doctors said.
Lashay did not protest, but she didn't immediately accept her fate. That happened after several years of nearly constant hospitalization.
“I spent a lot of time isolated from, I don't know ... living,” she said. “Me being in a hospital, having so much time to evaluate my life — I got a chance to get to know myself and the type of person I wanted to evolve into. I think that's when I learned to accept it.”
‘Get us some medics'
Officer John McBurney: 3731 emergency, 3731 emergency.
Allegheny County Police Dispatch: 3731 — go.
McBurney: On Wyandotte Street. We have an officer hit by shots fired. Start me some backup, please.
Dispatch: You're on Wyandotte?
McBurney: Correct, Wyandotte Street. Send me some backup. ... I got an officer down.
Unidentified officer: I copy that, I'm heading over the Fort Pitt Bridge.
Second unidentified officer: We're heading that way.
McBurney: He's hit on the right side of his abdomen. Come on, get us some medics here!
Retired Pittsburgh police Detective Jeff Smith occasionally listens to the police scanner recording from the night of Jan. 3, 2007, when a cross-dressing male prostitute shot him.
“I'm very humbled by it, all those guys that responded,” he said. “They came from districts all over.”
Smith and McBurney were working undercover, responding to complaints in West Oakland of rampant prostitution on side streets off Fifth Avenue. McBurney hid in the back of their van; Smith drove and negotiated a deal.
“Fifteen dollars for oral sex,” Smith said. “I used to try to get the price down just to see how low they'd go, just for fun.”
The prostitute, a man named William Anthony Scott who was dressed in drag, got into the van. McBurney popped up, and Smith identified himself as a police officer.
The chase was on.
“I'm wearing him down, I know, because he's falling back,” Smith said. “And that's when he reaches in the purse and pulls the gun out.”
The bullet entered through his side, struck a rib and bent it inward.
“Like a sledgehammer,” Smith said. “It hit me, my hand goes down, and I say, ‘Son of a ... he shot me.' I knew. I could feel the blood and everything.”
Smith's rib stopped the bullet from reaching his liver or any other organ, but severely damaged muscles in his shoulders and back.
“You know how a window looks when you take a hammer to it? When you hit it and it cracks outwards?” Smith said. “The doctor said that's what happened to the muscles in my back.”
Change in trajectory
“Bullets do a lot of damage to the body,” said Dr. Louis Alarcon, medical director of trauma surgery at UPMC Presbyterian. Once a bullet hits flesh and bone, it does not travel a straight line.
That's why shooting victims are stripped naked in the emergency room.
The moment the victim's vitals are stabilized, Alarcon begins the process of determining trajectory, counting entry and exit holes. He imagines the path and deduces how much damage the bullet or bullets caused.
“Is this a through-and-through bullet trajectory?” Alarcon asked. “Is it more than one bullet? Are there bullets lodged somewhere? The damage to the patient will depend on what organs were injured, how fast the bullet was traveling, and the caliber of the bullet. So our first priority is to determine the trajectory, what organs could be injured and what organs need to be repaired in surgery.”
Repair is the primary goal, not removal of the bullet.
Many patients protest when they hear a bullet cannot be removed, Alarcon said.
“They say, ‘You can't leave that in me.' Then we explain the risk of removing it and they accept it.”
Doctors left the bullet in Jeff Smith because retrieving it would require cutting open his chest cavity.
Smith doesn't care. He might carry the bullet for life, but at least he lived. The three Pittsburgh police officers who were fatally shot April 5, 2009, in Stanton Heights weren't as lucky, Smith said.
“I got to come home,” he said. “Paul Sciullo, Stephen Mayhle and Eric Kelly didn't get to come home. And now their families are missing them.”
‘I know it's there'
Dom Costa, a trained police negotiator, figured he was 20 to 30 minutes from talking the gunman into surrender.
In a heartbeat, everything changed.
The suspected drug dealer police had chased into a house in Homewood pulled a gun from his waistband and fired.
“The first bullet went past my earlobe,” Costa said. “I heard it zip by me and I felt the heat on my earlobe — that's how close it was.”
The second struck Costa's right shoulder, tore through muscle and tissue surrounding his spine, and worked its way up the left side of his neck.
It stopped at the base of his brain.
Bleeding, Costa's thoughts turned to his 11-year-old son.
“I thought, ‘This bullet is not killing me. I got a son to raise yet.' ”
Costa still suffers headaches as a result of the bullet, but doctors assure him it is doing no damage, he said.
“I know it's there,” Costa said. “I know I'm one of the few people in society that's walking around with a bullet in me, much less one in their brain.
“But I think more of the bullet that went past my ear. My daughters were already young ladies, but my son was still a boy and he needed his dad. You ask God, ‘Just let me stay around long enough so he's on his way and can fend for himself.' That's all I wanted.”
Costa retired from the police bureau and now is a state legislator. His son, Scott Costa, is 24 and works in information technology at UPMC.
Becomes part of you
Twenty years later, Averill “Ace” Pippens sought a second opinion.
Perhaps, he thought, medical advancements would enable doctors to remove the bullet wedged against his spine. Perhaps, he dreamed, he might someday walk again.
“Being paralyzed, for me, is not my choice but something I have to live with,” said Pippens, who in 1994 was shot five times by the ex-boyfriend of a girl he was with in St. Clair Village. “There is a big part of me that still would like to get up. I don't have to be able to run, but to at least be able to stand up, walk, take a step, have some sort of feeling. ... There's always going to be that hope.”
In rehabilitation, Pippens became depressed as specialists spoke to him about braces and crutches.
“I cried about it,” he said. “A lot. But it came to a point where I was like, ‘You're still paralyzed. Nothing is going to change that. No matter how much you cry, no matter how much you're depressed about it, nothing is going to change it. So deal with it.' ”
Pippens became coach, general manager and co-owner of Steel City Yellow Jackets, an expansion ABA basketball team. He spoke at a recent practice about his bullet while watching players run fast-break drills on the court at Community College of Allegheny County.
“I never had any ill will towards the particular bullet,” he said. “It's not the bullet's fault. The bullet didn't do it. It exists inside me, but the bullet didn't pull the trigger, the bullet didn't load itself inside of a gun. The bullet is just going along with me for the ride.”
He still dreams of walking.
If that day comes, if doctors figure out a way to take it out, Pippens would keep the bullet.
“I'd wear it around my neck,” he said. “That object, it means something in my life. It becomes a part of you.”
Why give up?
Ironically, doctors say, when they can remove a bullet, a patient cannot keep it.
“It's forensic evidence,” Alarcon said. “We have to give it to authorities. But people want their bullets.”
Lashay doesn't have a choice: She's keeping hers.
She is fine with that. The bullet, the shooting, that night at the church carnival — Lashay views them all as necessary steps in her life.
“I honestly don't think I would be the person I am today if it wasn't for the bullet that is inside of me,” she said. “I had every reason to give up — every damn reason as to why I shouldn't try to do something, or why I shouldn't continue to push forward. But why would you give up?”
Her past always present, Lashay chooses to focus on the future. She hopes to be a wife and mother. She wants to be a beautician, maybe start her own business.
“It's just something that came into my life and I have to live with,” Lashay said. “It's a part of me, like having a finger.”
In a desk drawer at home, she keeps another reminder: An old X-ray, showing the bullet in her spine.
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.