Alex, the Cornerstone: Alex Gálvez understands better than anyone that Transitions works like a rearview mirror. Today, he casts his eyes back 20 years to the time he lost the use of his legs after being shot. He was only 14, so when he first met Juan and Vinicio, he knew what they were going through. But Alex knew he had it worse, in his time. He had no blueprint, no one to look up to, because nothing like Transitions existed at the time.
Two decades ago, Alex lived in Colonia Carolingia, a gang-ridden neighborhood in Guatemala City’s Zone 19. The area was prone to gang-feuding for territory. But that didn’t faze him. He went about his business going to school in Zone 1, being a teenager, hanging out with his friends and family.
“One day I returned home at around noon and went over to my cousins’ (one boy and two girls) to have lunch. My aunt was not home,” Alex recalls. “There was nothing to drink, so my cousin (another teenaged boy) and I went to the store a few blocks down to buy soda.”
The streets were quiet, but Alex didn’t think anything of it. “Quiet” was normal for that time of day. Alex and his cousin were joking around as they approached the store when they saw a group of young men brandishing machetes and clubs, their faces partially covered by handkerchiefs. “As they looked at us, one of them yelled, ‘I see some! I see some!’” he said. “When I heard that, I told my cousin, ‘let’s run,’ [because] when you live there you know [when you need to run]. Then another one yelled, ‘Kill them!’”
One of the thugs ran toward Alex. He looked drugged and wasn’t holding a gun, so Alex thought he could strike him to the ground. Alex looks as if he could have been a big guy as a teenager. But he didn’t swing. Instead, Alex opted for taking cover behind the door of the tienda. But he couldn’t move it, as it was blocked by boxes of empty soda bottles. “Suddenly, the guy pulled a revolver from the back of his pants, and the first thing I thought was, ‘It’s a toy gun,’ until I felt its cold barrel on my forehead and realized, ‘OK, it’s not a toy gun.’ In an instant reflex I waved my arm to strike his.”
Alex shoved the gun away. But he also heard a single shot.
He later found out that the bullet’s tip had been filed to cause maximum damage. And it did as it entered his chest near his right shoulder and ricocheted straight into his spine.
“I fell to the ground,” he said. “I could not feel my legs; they weighed like bricks, and I couldn’t move.” As he lay on the floor, he saw the thug standing over him, staring. “Please, kill me!” Alex yelled, suddenly realizing what might have happened to him. Obediently, the thug pointed the gun at his face. Staring down the barrel, Alex recalls no longer being sure he wanted to be shot again. “Then the thug looked me in the eye, with a sudden expression of surprise — like he had just realized he didn’t know me — and ran out of there.”
The next few minutes were confusing. Alex heard people running toward him. Someone was screaming for help. Then he heard a woman hollering and a man’s voice crying. “No! Not the Colocho!”
Colocho, Curly in English, was Alex’s nickname.
There was hardly any blood. The bullet that broke his skin also closed it behind it. There was no exit wound. Alex felt a sharp pain in his back. Paramedics were called, but the neighbors were too anxious to wait and hoisted Alex onto the back of a pickup truck, then sped toward the hospital. Several blocks away they crossed paths with the ambulance. From there the paramedics took him to the closest emergency room.
Alex remembers having a fleeting thought that he never made it back to have lunch with his cousins.
Alex spent the next two weeks at the state-run Roosevelt General Hospital. At home, after two more weeks, and no knowledge about the healthcare he required, Alex developed skin ulcers from lying down on the same side for too long. He ended up in the hospital again, this time for an entire year as a paraplegic with potentially deadly skin infections. Day in and day out he saw patients’ corpses being wheeled out in body bags, and thought, “Let’s see which day it’s my turn.” He was only 15.
Alex was then transferred to the Hermano Pedro State Hospital in Antigua, Guatemala. There, he met other men, also young, also disabled (due to disease or violence) and also idle. Their families were unable to care for them. They didn’t know how. But the state medical authorities also lacked the means or knowledge to do so. After another year in a hospital Alex was 16. And he was bored out of his mind. That’s when he met John Bell, who was then volunteering at the school in the hospital. John needed someone to help him draw and write teaching materials for the children. Alex, with a good hand for drawing and painting, jumped at the chance to do something.
Four months later Alex was on his way to Washington, D.C. with John to receive more advanced medical treatment. It took several trips, and cost thousands of dollars. “John almost went bankrupt to help me. But with his own money and the funds he raised, he made sure I got the treatment I needed,” he said. It took Alex almost four years to recover his health. “Many people don’t believe me because we go about our business like anyone else, but getting there can take years.” It takes others from four to six months. It depends on each case and each patient.
Aside from skin problems, patients who lose the use of their legs also commonly experience renal diseases, and more likely than not, must use a colostomy bag. Quadriplegic patients, either fully paralyzed or semi-paralytic, can have a more complex physical recovery. Both quadriplegics and paraplegics must also face the emotional, psychological and spiritual challenges of recovery. Through an organization like Transitions, the experiences of others —who have experienced the challenges before — can be lifesaving. They give the newcomers someone to whom they can relate. Each one learns from several mentors who, like Alex, have survived the same, or worse.
To strangers, Alex comes across as serious, stern almost, someone with whom it is hard to break the ice. Alex explains that he needed to grow up fast after what he still calls “the accident,” which perhaps it was — an emotional collision that yanked him from boyhood to manhood overnight. He felt he needed to be “serious” and “tough” to survive. Now, at 34, he believes he lost four years that would have prepared him differently for life.
“I miss that part of my life,” he said, referring to the years he spent recovering in hospitals in Guatemala and the U.S. The bullet didn’t kill him, but those years of his childhood were extinguished. Yet the experiences made way for an Alex he had never imagined.
“It made me want to seek challenge constantly,” he said.
And seek challenge he did. After he returned to Guatemala for the first time after his treatment in the United States, Alex did not forget his friends at the hospital. There were other young men there, wheelchair-bound with nowhere to go. Alex wanted to do for them what John had done for him. Several months later, they found a house and moved Alex’s peers to what would be Transitions’ first clinic. The rest is history, thanks to donations — 99 percent of which come from outside Guatemala.
Today some two-thirds of the people that Transitions helps are disabled for causes other than violence. But it was a bullet that changed Alex’s life, and through the experience, he has helped change other lives.
“It’s not about saving the world, but if we can touch or change one life, we have done our job,” he says. He sees the cycles. He met John and the process began. Juan met him, and the process continued. Vinicio met Juan and the circle goes on.
“Last Holy Week in Antigua, I saw Vinicio chasing after the processions with his family; he would see the procession in one corner, and then speed ahead of it to watch it again on the next block, time and time again.”
These days Alex is often overworked by the administrative challenges of running Transitions. He’s not been as active as before. He even admits that he may have gotten a bit “lazy” and let himself go a bit. But when he sees Juan and Vinicio and all the others pushing forward on the basketball court, the workshop and elsewhere, he finds instant mojo. Surprising himself, he casts a broad smile.