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The untold story of gun violence - life-altering injuries

Miles Turner is helped up the stairs to his home by his mother Angela and his father Miles in Chicago, Illinois, June 9, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Y
Miles Turner is helped up the stairs to his home by his mother Angela and his father Miles in Chicago, Illinois, June 9, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Y

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Miles Turner V, 18, was shot at least five times on a Chicago sidewalk last October. Doctors believed he might die, but he survived.

The high school football player, who had never been in any trouble, is now undergoing physical therapy, in hopes of being able to walk again.

"His life has changed dramatically from what it was," said his father, Miles Turner IV. "It's not easy."

Young Miles represents a largely untold side of the gun violence story. It's about the survivors who must live with costly and often permanently debilitating injuries.

The Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, a group of national hospital databases, in 2009 showed 76,100 emergency room visits for gunshot wounds, about half of which involved assault. That same year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control logged 11,493 firearm homicides - less than a third of the number of assault injuries.

One notable example of a gunshot survivor whose life was permanently changed is former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head during a public appearance in 2011. She retired from Congress to focus on a lengthy recovery.

"Just looking at the number of deaths misses the enormity of the problem of street shootings," said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, who would like to see more research done on non-fatal gunshot injuries. "Until you can quantify the enormity of the problem, you can't figure out what interventions work and don't work."

MILES TURNER'S RECOVERY

Miles Turner V was around the corner from his home on Chicago's South Side, talking with a girl on her porch, when his cousin came by. Unlike Miles, who took no interest in street life, Modell McCambry, 17, was a gang "wannabe," according to Miles' father.

A gunman stepped out of the gangway and shot Modell. As Miles bent over to embrace his mortally wounded cousin, he was shot in the back, his parents said. The assailant has not been caught.

Miles was so gravely wounded that after one surgery, doctors told his father the youth's intestines fell through their hands when they picked them up. He remained in a medically induced coma for weeks.

Around Christmas, Miles was moved to a specialty wound center, and then to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago before going home in May. Teachers from Leo Catholic High School tutored him so he could keep up with his education, and he graduated June 2.

Adjustment to the physical changes in his life has been difficult for Miles. The former athlete has a catheter and needs a wheelchair to move around. His parents rise early to help him wash and get dressed, before they go to work.

Normally sociable and with a good sense of humor, during his treatments Miles was sometimes withdrawn, said his mother, Angela Turner.

She recalled sitting at his bedside and telling him: "It's unfortunate that this happened to you but He spared your life, so it's not the end. It's just something we have to deal with right now."

COSTLY INJURIES

A shooting - fatal or not - is a nest of different costs, including the price of criminal justice and the destruction of a community by fear, Hemenway said.

"The medical care costs can be very hard - the victim's quality of life goes way down, and the costs to society can be enormous," he said.

It is difficult to say if advances in medical care have decreased deaths or improved injury outcomes, said Hemenway, since firearms, like medicine, have become more potent.

Injuries from firearms cost close to $21 billion in 2010, according to a study published in 2012 by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a non-profit independent research group. Factored into the costs are lost work time, medical care, emergency transport services and police work, the study said.

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, every gunshot victim that enters the public hospital system costs taxpayers an average of $52,000. There were 846 reported victims in 2012, putting the costs at about $44 million.

"The terrible truth is the people who die cost us less than the people who live," said County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, speaking on the issue last fall.

This is a plague that affects mostly young males. Assault-related gunshot injuries are nine times higher among men, and three times more likely for victims aged 18-29 than any other age group, according to the healthcare project.

Nationally, 44 percent of injuries related to assault in 2009 involved victims without insurance, while 25 percent were billed to Medicaid, the project found.

Miles Turner's medical bills have been covered largely by insurance from his parents' jobs.

But incidental costs have hit hard. Parking, for example, cost $24, twice a day, at one facility. The shootings drove away tenants from the buildings the Turners own, which has forced them to dig into retirement savings to pay bills.

CONSEQUENCES OF SURVIVAL

Sometimes a non-fatal shooting can be a turning point that brings someone out of a dangerous lifestyle, according to Dr. Marie Crandall, a surgeon at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Northwestern refers injured people to CeaseFire Illinois, an anti-violence group that works to stem gang shootings and offers resources such as job skill training.

"People have definitely told me, in post-op follow ups, that this injury has set them straight," Crandall said. "It's sad, and it's an opportunity."

But she sometimes sees the same people in the trauma center more than once.

Even for those whose lives are not ruled by violence, a gunshot wound can change priorities. Chicago native Andrew Holmes was shot in the leg during an attempted robbery when he was in his 20s. It took him six painful months to learn to walk again.

Now 53, he said care shown by medical staff inspired him to become a community activist against violence. "A person's life is turned all the way around," Holmes said.

Miles Turner V hopes to attend the University of Miami, and learn how to make video games. His parents say he will likely enroll at a community college first. And Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, upon learning that Miles was good with computers, has offered him a job.

Miles Turner IV said he never asked God why this happened to his youngest child. "The only thing I asked the Lord was to let my son live."

But he does get angry at the young people on the streets who seem to care little about the damage bullets can do.

"It destroys everything," said Turner.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Arlene Getz, Greg McCune and Gunna Dickson)

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