Former Gun Injury Patient Helps Others Keep Violence from Shaping Their Lives.
One in an ongoing series
The bullet that ripped through Thomas Hunter’s body was a rebuke to a promise he’d made to himself: to avoid the violence of his West Philadelphia neighborhood. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t succumb. He had entrepreneurial ambitions, he’d go to college, start a business.
But guns had become part of the neighborhood parlance, a common punctuation to angry words.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Hunter says, explaining that he got in the middle of a family argument and was shot by a cousin’s stepbrother.
Fragments from the bullet lodged into Hunter’s spine; he was partially paralyzed. The eight months he spent recovering in the hospital were spent wondering: Now what?
Three years later, Hunter is back in a hospital, this time wearing an employee ID badge at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, Jefferson Health. Hunter is a certified peer specialist in the Department of Medicine’s Trauma Intervention Program, using his own experience to help others avoid having their lives determined – or terminated – by violence.
“I’m giving people a glimpse of what life can look like if you work hard,” Hunter says. “There’s more out there than darkness and gloom.”
Intensive Follow-up Care
The program provides intensive follow-up care to young people between the ages of 14 and 30 who’ve been treated in the Emergency Department for injuries from violence – gunshot wounds or stab wounds or shattered bones. Hunter is often the first person these patients see as they come through the doors of the emergency department. As soon as they’re stabilized and admitted, he begins reaching out.
For months after the shooting, Hunter couldn’t walk or climb steps because spinal nerve damage from the gunshot wound affected his left leg. “I couldn’t move my left leg and there was no feeling in it until after I went home from the hospital,” he says.
“Reality kicked in after I got my discharge papers and they took me home with a wheelchair, toilets, bathroom arm grabs – it really sunk in,” he says. “I might not move again.”
It wasn’t the life he planned.
“I grew up in a rough neighborhood and I tried to keep my head afloat while living in chaos,” he says. “I was always someone who wanted to change the trajectory of what’s normal in our neighborhood.”
Hunter says he avoided getting in trouble, and did attend college out of state for nearly two years. But financial circumstances brought him back home, he says, where shortly afterwards – on July 19, 2020 – his life was changed by the trajectory of a bullet.
Hunter began intense periods of physical therapy and soul searching after his discharge. And his thoughts kept returning to Jermaine, the peer specialist he saw while he was in the hospital.
Meeting Another Brother
“It was like me meeting another brother of mine,” Hunter says. “He was so forthcoming with his story of being shot, how his bullet wound affected his life.”
Jermaine told Hunter about the Healing Hurt People program at the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University’s Department of Emergency Medicine. Hunter was cross trained there as a Community Health Worker and Certified Peer Specialist.
Erica Harris, MD, emergency medicine physician and director of the Trauma Intervention Program, recruited him to Einstein.
“Tom has the lived experience, and more importantly, we have seen him be able to open himself up to the patients and truly meet them where they are on their journeys,” Dr. Harris says.
“He connects with them and lets them know they are not alone. This is not something we could have trained him to do- this is a passion he carries with him in his heart that he chooses to share with our patients every day. We are very lucky to have him!”
The only physical remnants of Hunter’s injury are a slight limp, he says – though he is in constant pain. But he has found a purpose.
“I had a lot of time to think after I was shot, about what happened, and how I could help somebody avoid the same circumstances,” he says. “I feel like I’m walking testimony every day I come in here.”