The impact of violence is usually calculated by the number of deaths per every 100,000 inhabitants. Those merely wounded by gunfire rarely make the headlines. The news often reports on how a bullet ends a life, but seldom on how one can change a life forever.
In Guatemala, nearly 4,500 people were wounded by gunfire in 2011 — that is almost one person wounded for every homicide during the same period. At least 200 cases involved teenagers. According to the Institute of Guatemalan Social Security (IGSS, its acronym in Spanish), close to 80 percent of paralyzed patients are originally wounded by gunfire. Many are minors, unable to resume the lives they would have had. Others find miracles.
On Friday afternoons twelve young men claim the Candelaria neighborhood basketball court in Antigua, Guatemala. With sweaty faces, they gasp, almost out of breath, struggling to get a hold of the ball. “Juan! Alex! Here!” yells one of them under the basket, while he stretches his arms over his head and then tries to swerve around the defense. The wheelchairs on which they move release a metallic clatter as they clash against each other. Seconds later, some players are throwing hard checks on their rivals, making a cascade of dry thuds.
The first-time spectator expects to see screws and springs fly through the air, and players crash to the ground, but nothing of the sort happens. The players glide over the court on wheelchairs especially made to resist the battle, and they are secured to them with safety belts.
When a player loses his balance and ends up upside down, facing the ground, he’s responsible for first hurling himself sideways, and then backwards, until he’s sitting upright again, ready to play. The game pauses for a few minutes while the downed player rights himself. The other players take a moment to rest, readying themselves to once again charge.
The game is a jumble of wheelchairs and players clasping and unclasping one another in a rhythmic chaos, peppered with the repetitive thumping of the bouncing ball. Pervading it all is laughter, and lots of shouting.
Most of these players are Central American basketball champions in a league for disabled athletes. After watching what they do on the court, it’s easy to understand why they are the best in the region. What’s more difficult to imagine is that forty percent of the players are in wheelchairs because they were victims of gunfire.
The teammates are all members of Transitions, a foundation that helps these men accomplish what the spectators witness on the basketball court. Annual donations allow the players to work with the program. They form a brotherhood of sorts in which one learns from the others, even the oldest member from the newest. Transitions is an ongoing physical and psychological rehab organization that helps the men become self-sufficient after their injury. Some recover much of the life that the bullet took; others are forced into a permanent detour wherein they must learn to live a different life from the one in which they could walk. The general sense they convey is that this life is not better, nor worse — just different. Their disabilities are a daily challenge, and one that has no backup plan. For the men on the court giving up is not an option.
Their stories are compelling.
Vinicio’s Miracle: On February 14 of 2009, Valentine’s Day, Vinicio Cabrera, 27, picked up his girlfriend from work near downtown Antigua. On his motorcycle, they headed to San Felipe, where she lived. Once they arrived, she went into her house to put away her purse. Vinicio parked the bike.
“I waited for her outside, because we were going to hang out on the sidewalk, when I saw two guys walking towards me,” Vinicio said. “They wore baseball caps almost pulled over their eyes, so I couldn’t see their faces well; one of them told me, ‘Give me the keys to the bike,’ and I got angry because it was new — my previous one had been stolen — so I told them, ‘Come on guys, give me a break.’ I thought the whole thing was a joke; everyone knew me in that neighborhood.”
But then one of the men whipped out a gun, and Vinicio realized that the men weren’t joking around. He tried offering them his watch, money, anything he had on him that he could think of, but all they wanted was the bike. One of the assailants shook him and yanked a set of keys hanging from a key chain attached to his belt. They were his house keys. Vinicio knew that the bike’s key was not there, but thought it could buy him time to make a run for the gate and hide inside his girlfriend’s house. He had just turned around when he found himself laying face down on the ground.
At first, Vinicio didn’t know what happened because he didn’t hear anything that sounded like a gunshot. But he couldn’t move. “All I could hear were my girlfriend and her sisters screaming,” he said. “I kept telling them to turn me over, that I wanted to know what happened, but my girlfriend told me they couldn’t, that we had to wait for the paramedics because my back was covered with blood.”
The paramedics took Vinicio to the Hermano Pedro National Hospital in Antigua. “I remember that they were going to cut my clothes to remove them, but I begged the nurse not to do it; they were my favorite, so she helped me take them off,” he said. “The doctors examined me and talked about my case with other doctors and medical students on duty. And they spoke to my family, not to me, although it was me who was suffering.” The doctors then referred him to Roosevelt Hospital, another state hospital in Guatemala City. No doctors approached him to discuss his case or tell him what had happened. The doctors at Hermano Pedro removed the bullet and stabilized Vinicio, but provided no further treatment.
Two weeks later, Vinicio and several other patients were still being housed in the Roosevelt Hospital emergency room, as the male-patient wing was full. As such, he was treated under emergency room protocols. The medical staff would routinely awaken him at midnight for an X-ray. He was awakened again at three in the morning to take medication. Half an hour later, he was awakened again to receive a sponge bath. No one had yet spoken to him about the severity of his condition.
“Next to my bed was a guy who had been shot and was on a 24-hour police watch. Two cops kept eyes on him at all times,” Vinicio said, still shaking his head, incredulous. “One day, I decided I had had enough and begged a nurse to tell me what was wrong with me, and that’s when I finally heard that the bullet had damaged my spine and my ability to use my legs.”
It was then that Vinicio and his family decided he should return home.
Until the shooting, Vinicio had worked as a technician for a computer company. They helped him to get a hospital wheelchair and physical therapy. Yet, life as he knew it was gone. “I couldn’t do anything, not even bathe by myself, and my sisters had to help me; it was embarrassing,” he said. “I felt like a child because my family felt they couldn’t leave me alone, especially after I overheard one of my sisters tell her husband she couldn’t come home yet because there was no one else to stay with me.”
Vinicio decided to look for a second medical opinion. His former employer had put him in contact with a private doctor. But, again, the news was crushing. The doctor told him that he would need a miracle if he were ever to walk again. Upon hearing this, Vinicio closed up. He stopped seeing his friends. At first, that was because his mother was being overprotective of him. Then, he just wanted to quit. Everything. The weekly physical therapy didn’t make sense to him anymore. Nothing did. His life had been cut in two parts: before and after being shot.
Then Juan Chiti showed up in his life.
One day, when Vinicio’s girlfriend was at work at a clothes store in the Antigua market, she saw a young man moving about in a wheelchair, looking at clothes, trying them on, chatting up the salesgirl, like any other guy. She was awed and immediately thought of Vinicio. She approached Juan, and asked him how he managed to handle himself so well. She told him about her boyfriend. Juan smiled — almost to himself, knowing exactly what Vinicio was going through — and told her about Transitions. He told her how he had learned from others there. Juan gave her his number and told her that Vinicio could call him if he wanted to learn more.
“I called him and arranged to meet him at the wheelchair workshop,” said Vinicio.
When he arrived at Transitions, he could see that there was a long ramp leading from the front patio to the wheelchair workshop beyond. The shop was run entirely by young men in wheelchairs. And they appeared to have found what Vinicio was looking for: camaraderie. Lots of it. He heard waves of norteña music and peals of laughter. It was welcoming. For the first time since the shooting, he felt that it was possible to be happy again.
As Vinicio recalls, Juan maneuvered his chair and rolled swiftly over a small ramp leading to the main work area. “I had a very hard time rolling the chair over the ramp, but looking at Juan I decided I was going to try to be like him,” Vinicio said. He wanted to have what Juan was having: a life back.
Juan explained what he needed to do — what equipment he needed to get — to become more independent, to bathe without help, to move from his chair to the bed, and so on. Such knowledge helped Vinicio regain his independence and helped his family to become less overprotective. Soon, he was not only a visitor at Transitions, but received a scholarship to stay longer. He has been a staff member since 2011.
Three years after being shot, Vinicio has recovered much of his life. He got married last year. He’s adopted his wife’s six-year-old daughter as his own, and he is learning English. “I hope to work in something else later on,” he explained. “I used to work with computers, but people think that because you are in a wheelchair you can only work at a call center — when there are many things we can do.”
Despite his 30 years, Vinicio has a shy, almost boyish demeanor, accentuated by his wavy, black hair parted at the side. His face still clouds when he speaks of his disability. It is a daily challenge. Yet, Transitions and his family’s support have helped him through.
“I remember one day I was taking measurements from a patient, so we could manufacture a custom-made chair for him and it got me thinking how lucky I was,” Vinicio said, his eyes watering. “Another time, a man came to the workshop looking for help; his feet were covered in blisters and sores, and he needed more medical attention than Transitions could provide, and had to be turned down. He made me realize what might have become of me if no one had helped me, [and that] I had gotten my miracle after all.”