September 4, 2013
Guests: Amy Goldberg & Scott Charles
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Do you know anyone who's been shot? How you answer that question puts you on one side of what's become a dividing line in America today. For example, in the inner-city neighborhood of North Philadelphia, many young people have friends, family, schoolmates who have been wounded or killed by people with guns.
These shooting victims usually get taken to the trauma unit of Temple University Hospital. Dr. Amy Goldberg, the head of the trauma unit, has treated many of these victims and watched some of them die. In 2006 she decided to do something to try to help stop the cycle of violence. Together with Scott Charles she created Cradle to Grave, a violence prevention program that brings small groups of at-risk youth to the hospital to show that getting shot isn't like on TV and in the movies.
At the hospital, Charles tells the young people the story of one 16-year-old from North Philadelphia who was shot multiple times. Dr. Goldberg describes the surgery she performed trying to save him. Dr. Amy Goldberg and Scott Charles are my guests. Charles is the director of the Cradle to Grave program and is also the hospital's trauma outreach coordinator and counsels many young shooting victims.
Later we'll hear from one of those young men who was shot early this year and survived. Eight thousand people so far have gone through the Cradle to Grave program. Scott Charles, Dr. Amy Goldberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you both for coming. Dr. Goldberg, about how many gunshot patients do you see each week?
DR. AMY GOLDBERG: We see about 500 a year, so I guess that would almost make about, you know, 10 a week.
GROSS: What are some of the medical misunderstandings you want to undo by bringing young people into the ER?
GOLDBERG: Well, I think particularly what we want to do is to educate these young kids that gunshot wounds and injuries can kill. I think what they see on TV, they hear on hip-hop and music, is that you get shot and you're fine, and that is not the case at all, that these are lethal injuries and you can walk away paralyzed with severe injuries...
GROSS: Or not walk away.
GOLDBERG: Or not walk away at all.
GROSS: And Scott, is there like a bravado you're trying to undo too about what it means to be shot?
SCOTT CHARLES: I don't know that we're ever going to really be able to undo the bravado. You know, I completely get the bravado. As a result...
GROSS: Explain it to me.
CHARLES: Sure, sure. So you know, there's a lot of mythology that surrounds guns and gun violence in the neighborhoods. But one of the things that being shot does, I believe, is that it really is the thing that suggests to the community, at whole, that somebody imposed their will on another. And as the victim of the gun injury, I think there's a sense or a desire to recoup something that was lost.
And the word is that they're now soldiers as a function of being shot. They go back out and they say it wasn't really that big a deal being shot, I took it like a soldier. And I completely understand that, because their concern, I believe, is the fear of being reinjured or re-victimized. They become a target. You don't want to be seen as soft. I get that.
The problem is for those who've not been shot yet. They have no idea how bad this experience is. The reality for 80 percent of the people who get shot, more than 80 percent of people who get shot in Philadelphia and who will survive, it's really a story of suffering.
And so what we wanted to do with the Cradle to Grave program is to reveal the truth about that experience. It's not like what they see on television. It's not like the word that they're getting on the street. What I hear from young men who get shot, and I will meet virtually every young man who will be admitted into the hospital, the one thing that they say time and time again, Terry, is I wouldn't wish this upon my own worst enemy.
GROSS: What do you want to do for them?
CHARLES: Well, you know, the very first thing I want to do is to let them know that there's somebody there serving as an advocate for them and that they can tell me anything, they can ask me anything. It's really to have a conversation with them at every turn, to let them know that we don't have to continue this cycle of violence, that it can end here.
What'll happen when an individual has been shot, oftentimes, is their friends are going to come in, and they're going to kind of puff them up and let them know that they're going to retaliate in this young person's honor. And my goal is to try to be a voice that is going to interrupt that moment. And when the two of us can have a conversation, we're going to spend a lot of time talking about what retaliation ultimately means, how this will carry on much further down the line.
GROSS: A project that you're collaborating on is the Cradle to Grave program. And what you do in that, Scott Charles, you take a group of young people who are at risk into the ER at Temple University Hospital, and you tell them the story of a young man who was shot multiple times and didn't make it. Tell us a little bit of the story that you tell those young people.
CHARLES: Sure. I tell the story of a young man named Lamont Adams, who was 16 years old at the time of his death. He was a kid who grew up probably just a little over a mile and a half from where Temple Hospital is located. He was a very typical kid, which is one of the reasons I wanted to tell Lamont's story. He was well-liked, very outgoing, friendly, he was funny, and Lamont got into some kind of trouble. It's unclear precisely what the dispute was about.
The rumor on the street was initially that Lamont might have cooperated with the police or set up this dice game that was going on that he had been a part of, and what we believe ultimately happened is that Lamont just so happened to leave this dice game that he was involved in right before the police came and broke up the dice game.
What happened after the police came to break up this dice game is that they found a young man in that dice game who had a weapon on him, and that young man was arrested on that gun charge and taken away. And those who were left behind after Lamont walked off felt that Lamont might have cooperated with the police, and at least that's one explanation.
Another was that Lamont simply won some money in that dice game and that it was a matter of sour grapes. Nonetheless, a few weeks after this occurred, Lamont would essentially write out his obituary after receiving a number of threats, and in fact he wrote this obituary on a paper napkin the night before he was gunned down. He quietly wrote the words: Lamont Adams, son of Daneen Adams and James Edward Mathis, is gunned down in North Philly. And he would fold up that napkin and leave it behind.
His grandmother would find this note, and she would confront him, and he would reassure her that he was OK. However, he would leave the house 24 hours later, almost exactly 24 hours later, and walked just about a block from his house, where he would be gunned down.
The young man who shot Lamont shot Lamont a total of 14 times and left him for dead. And this is the story that we tell the young people that come through the program.
And then, we then from that point walk them into the hospital Emergency Department, where Dr. Goldberg or a surgical resident will then guide them through all of the steps that were taken in an effort to save Lamont's life.
GROSS: One of the things that you do is you take one of those students who you're talking to, put them on a gurney, and you put red dots on each of the places where Lamont was shot. And it's very disturbing to see that, and I think it's very disturbing for the young people who are watching to see it because it's as if this young person has gotten all these bullet wounds because they're symbolically placed throughout his body.
And after you do that and talk about that, Dr. Goldberg, then you start talking about what you did to try to save him. And you start pulling out surgical tools that look like I should be buying them in a hardware store to repair my kitchen. I want you to describe some of the surgical tools that you had to use to try to save Lamont.
GOLDBERG: We show them a laryngoscope, which is used to put a breathing tube in, because Lamont wasn't breathing on his own. We show them the scalpel that was used or the type of scalpel that was used to open Lamont's chest, the special retractor to spread open the ribs and keep the chest open so we can gain access to the heart.
GROSS: And that retractor, it's like a big metal thing that looks like maybe for your car.
GOLDBERG: It's called a Finicetto(ph) retractor, but in reality it's a rib-spreader, and that's what we use, unfortunately, to spread the ribs of these young patients so that we can do surgery in the trauma bay. When we cut across the breastbone, we use something called a Libshki(ph) knife, but in reality it's a very crude hammer and kind of a knife that separates the breastbone in half - again, so that we can get full access to both the left and right chest, as well as the heart.
GROSS: You lost Lamont on the table.
GROSS: Why weren't you able to save him?
GOLDBERG: Well, Lamont had multiple injuries to his chest and both lungs and his heart, and those are just lethal. And in spite of everything that medicine can provide, there are certain damages that bullets do that we cannot fix, unfortunately.
GROSS: Dr. Goldberg, when you're trying to save somebody's life who's been shot, do you make any difference between who was, you know, a quote good guy and who was, you know, a quote bad guy in the situation? I mean some people are the aggressors and some people are the victims. And, you know, does that make a difference?
GOLDBERG: It doesn't make a difference for the physicians and nurses. When the patients arrive in the trauma bay, we don't get that information, and I'm really happy that we don't. Every person that comes in the trauma bay has somebody that loves them. Whether they are on the good or the wrong side of the law, it's not for us as physicians or nurses or whomever to make any judgment when we're taking care of the patients.
So that is something for sure that we don't usually know, and I'm thankful for that.
GROSS: Scott Charles, one of the things I think you do when you're talking to the students and when Dr. Goldberg's showing them all the surgical tools and so on, you play them a tape of Lamont's grandmother, and she's the woman who raised him. And this was a tape that you helped get recorded through the StoryCorps project on NPR, and StoryCorps is a public radio project. You've probably heard some of their stories on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
And there was a group of teenagers who went around trying to get the stories of 35 young people who were shot to death in Philadelphia, and one of the stories was Lamont's. And a couple of students spoke to Lamont's grandmother, who raised him, and I want to play that excerpt of the StoryCorps piece.
And first we'll hear the two students who are doing the interview introducing themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TERRENCE BOYKINS: Hello. My name is Terrence Boykins. I'm 14 years old.
PATRICK VOLF: My name is Patrick Volf. I'm 14 years old. Today I'm talking to Mrs. Clark about Lamont Adams. Why do you want to participate in this project?
JENNY CLARK: Because Lamont was my baby, my grandson. I raised him. I don't want him forgotten.
BOYKINS: What memories do you have of his early childhood?
CLARK: He had a hard raspy voice when he was a little fellow. There was a song out called - (Singing) oh, baby, you, you've got what I need. (Speaking) And Lamont wasn't even walking but he was sitting up singing that song.
BOYKINS: Can you describe his personality?
CLARK: Lamont loved to talk and laugh. He had the prettiest smile and the whitest teeth and he always showed them, mouth always open. Always talking. He made friends everywhere. People liked him. That personality, I wish I'd have had it.
VOLF: How do you want Lamont to be remembered?
CLARK: Just remember that big smile, that big smile that I'm so crazy about. His last wash is still downstairs in the basement in the hamper because I can't move his things. I go through them, I look at them, but I don't move his things. Sometimes I go in the bathroom and I close the door and I get down on my knees and I cry and I ask God why my baby. Why did he have to hurt my baby? They don't know what they took from us.
GROSS: Scott Charles, why do you play that tape for the young people?
CHARLES: As I say to the young people who come through the program, you have an easy job when you die. You only have to die one time. But the people that you leave behind die a little bit each and every day for the rest of their lives. I recently had the experience of sitting down with Jenny just a few months ago, and we sat down in her living room.
GROSS: This is the grandmother.
CHARLES: The grandmother, Jenny Clark. And we sat down in her living room just as we had all those years ago. And I'll tell you, I can't even think of how many years it's been, nine year now maybe, and she still weeps today as she had all those years ago. She's just never gotten over it. And so really that's what I want kids to understand, that it's not just about them. This is about everybody they leave behind.
GROSS: My guests are Dr. Amy Goldberg, chief of the trauma unit at Temple University Hospital, where she co-founded the Cradle to Grave program with Scott Charles, who's also with us. Our thanks to David Isay and the folks at StoryCorps for that tape excerpt. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're talking about trying to stop the cycle of violence that's killing and maiming so many inner-city youth. My guests are Dr. Amy Goldberg, the chief of the trauma unit at Temple University Hospital; and youth counselor, Scott Charles. They co-founded the Cradle to Grave Program, which Charles directs.
So let me ask you about another aspect of the work that you're doing at Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia, and that is called Turning Point, and this one is about working with gunshot victims. When trauma victims come in, they're videotaped in the emergency room having whatever work is being done to them.
And part of the reason - I think you're doing this for multiple reasons, but there's one reason in particular that relates to what we're talking about today. And Dr. Goldberg, would you explain that?
GOLDBERG: Yeah, absolutely. Cradle to Grave is hopefully prevention, and Turning Point is an intervention. And as Scott had mentioned earlier in the interview, it is very quickly the kids kind of forget how they felt in the trauma bay, how scared they were, how they were calling for their mothers, how they thought that they were going to die.
And we thought it was really important, again in the educational process, to remind them. So we thought the best thing that we could do, with their permission, would be to show them what it was like in the trauma bay because we, again, were fearful that they had forgotten.
So we let them see that, you know, that they were crying or calling for their moms or am I going to die. And we find it - and I think they find it to be very educational and insightful.
GROSS: When you started in medical school, and you were training, did you think and someday I'll be treating 500 gunshot victims a year?
GOLDBERG: No, not at all. I don't think I knew from a gunshot wound. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, never really knew anything about any inner city anywhere, particularly North Philadelphia, and had no idea that this was so commonplace.
GROSS: How did you end up in the position that you are? By that I mean, you know, dealing, for more than 20 years, dealing with a lot of gunshot victims and staying in that position. It's not like you're - you want to get out of that, and you're moving to a suburban hospital.
GOLDBERG: I think doing my training at Temple as a surgical intern and a surgical resident, educated me to what was going on just four miles from City Hall. I felt very fortunate about the opportunities that I had. And, you know, it just kind of didn't seem fair, believe it or not, that everyone didn't have those same opportunities.
And, you know, there was a little war going on in North Philadelphia. I particularly remember a time during my surgical residency when Desert Storm was taking place, and luckily there weren't that many fatalities in Desert Storm, but during...
GROSS: This was the first Iraq war.
GOLDBERG: Yes, but during that week in January, I mean, I specifically recall more young black men getting shot in the head, dying, than any of the fatalities from Desert Storm, and that's not minimizing what our soldiers go through. But there was a war that was going on in North Philadelphia that I just didn't feel that anybody was paying attention to.
GROSS: Dr. Goldberg, our listeners can't see, but you're pretty short and small. You're about...
GOLDBERG: Five two and a quarter.
GROSS: Five two and a quarter, OK. You're white, and you're from a suburb.
GROSS: You're working in Philadelphia's inner city. If you were on the street with some of the people whose lives you're saving or trying to save, you would be considered vulnerable. You're small. In a world where physical power is important, I don't know how much you have. But in the emergency room, you're saving people's lives. Their lives are in your hands, and it doesn't matter if you're tall or short or physically weak or physically strong.
And I wonder if you've thought about that a lot, about just a different way that you'd be perceived in the ER than, say on the street.
GOLDBERG: Well, I'm very cautious to ever think that really any one person saves someone's life. I think it takes our entire team, and the longer I am a trauma surgeon, the more I really believe more and more in God and the greater power that exists.
You know, I think I'm comfortable whether it's in the trauma bay or on the street in Center City or on the street in North Philadelphia. I think probably in North Philadelphia, they would recognize me, having been there so long. I do think the patients know me.
CHARLES: I'm sorry...
GROSS: No, go ahead, go ahead.
CHARLES: I was going to jump in because one, I want to thank you for being able to point out how diminutive she is because she gets mad when I do that.
CHARLES: But one of the things that she won't tell you and that you haven't had the benefit of seeing is the way she kind of stomps about the hospital. She's much smaller than some of the patients that get to know her while she's there.
I've had the benefit of seeing her outside of the hospital, too. And as she mentioned when I've had - on more than one occasion seen patients who recognize her from the hospital when we're going out for coffee or getting something to eat in the neighborhood. And many times they'll come up and say you, Dr. Goldberg, you're the lady that saved me.
There is a degree of credibility that she has out there, but I think one of the things that she also recognizes is that whether it's Philadelphia or anywhere else in America, that she's really not going to be the target of this type of violence. By and large, the safest you're going to be when it comes to gun violence is to be white and to be female.
But I think more importantly...
GROSS: Why do you say that?
CHARLES: Well, 92 percent of the people who get shot in Philadelphia are male. Eighty-two percent of the people who get shot are African-Americans. Just by virtue of that demographic, it puts her a bit on the outside. But again more importantly I think the matter is, for Amy, is I think she does have a tremendous amount of faith. I do believe she believes in karma. I think that she believes she has a great deal of good will out there.
I've never sensed that she felt vulnerable. There are a lot of adjectives one might use to describe Amy, but vulnerable isn't one of them.
GROSS: Scott Charles and Dr. Amy Goldberg co-founded the Cradle to Grave Program. We'll talk more in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about trying to stop the cycle of gun violence in the inner city. Dr. Amy Goldberg, the chief of Temple University Hospital's trauma unit, has treated many gunshot victims in the inner-city neighborhood of North Philadelphia.
In 2006, she decided to do something to convince young people to break the cycle of violence. Along with Scott Charles, who was with us, she co-founded the program Cradle to Grave, that brings young people into the hospital to explain what guns really do the body and to people's lives.
Charles is the program's director. And as the hospital's trauma outreach coordinator, Charles counsels gunshot victims. We'll hear from one of them, Gregory Cunningham, a little later.
Scott Charles, you come from a violent neighborhood, and I assume that's part of the reason why you're doing the work that you do, 'cause you, you know what it's like to grow up in bad circumstances. So could you tell us a little bit about your background and your neighborhood?
CHARLES: Sure. I grew up in a neighborhood that was, I think, some would argue predominantly Mexican, predominantly Hispanic. I'm the biracial son of a white mom, single mom, growing up in that neighborhood. There were gangs in the neighborhood that I grew up in. And a number of my friends had either been stabbed or shot by the time I had finished high school. But again, compared to kind of where we are in Philadelphia, where virtually every kid that will come through the program knows somebody who's been shot, it wasn't quite that violent, but violent enough. Certainly, not the kind of community that I'd want to raise my kids in today.
GROSS: And were they are casualties in your own family?
CHARLES: Yeah. I have a brother who was shot. And, you know, when we talk about families, my mom was a great mom, you know, worked hard, went to work every day. But my being raised in that community was a bit of a patchwork -where I think, you know, my father having died when I was nine, it left me looking for father figures. One of them was a man named Jess Fernandez, who was the father of my childhood friends and he was a surrogate dad to me, you know, passed his wisdom on to me. And, unfortunately, Jess ended up dying not long ago, in fact, just a few years ago as a result of a gunshot injury.
GROSS: And what about your brother, how was he shot?
CHARLES: You know, it happened so long ago and really when I was a young, young boy. But, you know, the story is basically he was hanging out at a park where that kind of thing went on often. And again, I was such a young kid but it became part of his legend, you know. But, you know, my father was...
GROSS: Did he survive?
CHARLES: Yeah. He survived. And, you know, my father was a man who had a lot of guns. Guns were very common in my house when my father lived with us. And I can remember my father getting into disputes with neighbors and the guns would come out. Or the police showing up at our home because he had threatened somebody and sometimes my mom with those guns.
GROSS: He threatened your mother with the guns?
CHARLES: Sure. And I think really implicit in his rage was the fact that he was somebody who had guns. So this was really part of the backdrop in my life. You know, I was raised around guns.
GROSS: Did you want guns?
CHARLES: Oh, absolutely. You know, as a young man I possessed guns illegally. From the time I think I was 14 I was provided a handgun by somebody that I worked for under the table. You know, and it was...
GROSS: Someone in the legitimate or the underground economy?
CHARLES: I-I worked in a, I worked for a grocery store and that was in the neighborhood and I worked under the table for protection. One of the owners gave me a handgun, a gun that was illegal with no serial numbers. And so that was really, you know, the message that I got from a very early age, if I was going to protect myself I would need a gun.
GROSS: Did you feel empowered at the age of 14 when you were given a gun?
CHARLES: Yeah. I mean what - at 14 what kid doesn't feel empowered? You know, I mean this weapon, this handgun, is so lethal. And, you know, I thank God when I look back on my life that I didn't make a stupid mistake that there would be no coming back from.
GROSS: So, you know, in addition to growing up in a relatively violent neighborhood - not as violent as you work now...
GROSS: ...and, you know, being given an illegal gun when you were 14, and your brother was shot when he was young, you had other issues to deal with too - including a drug problem...
GROSS: ...in your life. And you credit - correctly me if I'm wrong here - but you credit your aunt and your uncle...
GROSS: ...with helping you get out of that life. And I'd like you - if you would - to tell us a little bit about them and what they did to help you and how that, if at all, has inspired you to do the work that you're doing.
CHARLES: Sure. So one of the things - if you don't mind - I just want to be clear, by mom was fantastic but she struggled to do all that she could and give me the life that she had hoped to give me just because it's tough for single moms. I developed a drug problem in my late teens and a few years later I found myself pretty well strung out - having lost all money that I had earned. And I had no skills, didn't have much of an education beyond high school. I reached out to an aunt of mind who, along with her husband, owned an African-American newspaper in Sacramento called the Sacramento Observer. And as they would with a lot of guys who were struggling, and women, they would take me on. They allowed me to sweep up and I remember my first job there was cleaning up behind the graphic artists that were there - one of whom was my oldest brother who himself had a drug problem.
What I found out that newspaper were a lot of proud people who came to work, worked hard, they were different from a lot of the guys that I had known growing up. These are men who has struggled with addiction and alcoholism, had criminal records, but they were men who were showing up every day and working hard. But more importantly, my uncle, Dr. Lee, Dr. William Lee, was a man who was hard on me and I think he spent the first few years of my time at that newspaper, I probably spent often on a decade at that newspaper. My uncle broke down all of my bravado and basically told me to leave out that street stuff at the door. I worked long hours for little pay - much like I do now.
CHARLES: And, you know, I had responsibility for the first time in my life and I was loved unconditionally. So I had somebody really cracking the whip and loving me unconditionally and I was given an opportunity, I was given a life, a life raft. And if not for that opportunity that they provided me there's no way that I could be here today. And I think that, you know, everything that I'm doing today is really an extension of the men in my life who stepped up.
It's hard to describe what my job title is because it has this long title: Trauma Outreach Coordinator, and I think I've said in private to Amy, if I had to, if I were allowed to change that title I think of myself as kind of an old head for hire.
CHARLES: In fact, that really is kind of what I want to be. You know, everything I do I want it to be the extension of the men who invested in me - like my uncle, like Jess. And when I walk into that room I want them to know that I am going to love them unconditionally. But sometimes it requires me to break down their bravado. It allows me, it requires me, to tell them to leave that street stuff out there. And sometimes I wait for their friends to leave so that I don't embarrass them, and sometimes I make sure that their friends are there to know that there is an older guy who is going to walk into this room and let them know that I'm going to love you unconditionally, but for this moment in time you're in my house and I'm going to be completely honest with you. That thing that you're doing right now has no real value. It has no values here and ultimately it's going to have no value in your life.
GROSS: I asked you if you could suggest a young who had been shot and survived and could talk about the experience and coming out of it. And you recommended somebody who is about to join us, named Gregory Cunningham, can you introduce him for us?
CHARLES: Sure. Greg came in having been shot kind of in the middle of the day. And as I'll do during the day when somebody gets shot, I came down and checked on him and understood that he'd be going to the operating room, and so I went and saw some other patients. And as soon as I left that space my phone started buzzing from guys in the neighborhood, past patients and some whose job it is to work with gunshots patients in other programs. And I kept getting the same story, this is a really good guy, can you let me know ho my man is doing? You know, is he okay? And then I got to meet Greg when he was admitted to the floor. And I walked in and I encountered a man who was hurting, he was in a tremendous amount of pain, very handsome substantial injuries. But despite his injuries, he was very kind. I think he was a little scared. But more than anything, I think he was a little frightened and overwhelmingly hurt - not just in terms of physical hurt, but I think he felt a sense of betrayal. But he was a proud young man. And since Greg has been discharged he's come and spoken to a few of the groups of kids that we brought through the program. He has a tremendous amount of street credibility. And long before he was shot, he was respected for his basketball skills. But he's a young man - who like, a lot of our gunshot patients - had a life that, you know, isn't defined by being shot. And so I thought he'd be somebody good for you to speak with.
GROSS: And how long ago was Greg shot?
CHARLES: Greg was shot in January of just this year.
GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
CHARLES: Thank you, Terry.
GOLDBERG: Thank you.
GROSS: Scott Charles directs the Cradle to Grave program at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. He co-founded the program with Dr. Amy Goldberg, the hospital's trauma chief.
We'll meet Gregory Cunningham after break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Gregory Cunningham, who was just introduced for us by Scott Charles, director of the Cradle to Grave program at Temple University Hospital. Charles counseled Cunningham after Cunningham was shot on a Philadelphia street last January.
Gregory Cunningham, thank you for joining us.
GREGORY CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.
GROSS: Did you everything that you'd be shot?
CUNNINGHAM: No. No way. No how.
GROSS: And why did you think it was impossible?
CUNNINGHAM: The life that I lived up until the point that I was shot didn't amount to that. And I was an athlete, I was a, you know, a college student, I played basketball so I never thought that the life that I was living would, you know, amount to me being shot.
GROSS: Can you tell us how you were shot?
CUNNINGHAM: It was over a situation somebody that I knew shot me. You know what I'm saying, I really don't want to get into all of, you know...
GROSS: That's fine.
CUNNINGHAM: ...the everything that happened. But somebody that I, I wasn't shot by a stranger. Let me just say that. I'm very familiar with the person that, you know, tried to do what they did to me.
GROSS: Where in your body were the bullets?
CUNNINGHAM: I got shot in my leg and in my back.
GROSS: But not your spine?
CUNNINGHAM: A couple inches. I think they were saying like I was a couple inches from, you know, being paralyzed, that the bullet, you know, it pierced one of my lungs. I lost half a lung.
GROSS: Do you remember the moment you were shot?
GROSS: Do you have any memory?
CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, I remember that.
GROSS: What went through your mind when you knew you'd been shot?
CUNNINGHAM: Aw, man, I hope I don't die. Because I saw my leg when I first got - the first bullet hit my left femur. So it was like, aw man, it was like pretty much hanging I guess by, you know, a couple threads or whatever because it was like all over the place. When I was trying to lift my leg up, I remember was trying to lift my leg up, it was just like, no, I had nothing. So it was like I started to pass out. I started losing blood rapidly, so I began to, you know, I guess blank out a little bit, so...
GROSS: But then you were shot the second time.
CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. In my back. And I felt that too. It was like somebody just, you know, like a little, a sharp shove in your back with some force.
GROSS: How did you get to the emergency room?
CUNNINGHAM: Philadelphia police, they came and they saved me. So there's a lot of people out there that got some bad stories with Philadelphia police, but I got a good one.
GROSS: Were you able to thank them?
CUNNINGHAM: Not personally the two that did it but, you know, I showed my gratitude to a lot of police officers in that district, you know, once I was able to see them and let them know what happened, because around where I live at you see cops all the time. They walk the beat, they drive, you know what I'm saying?
GROSS: How did you deal with your anger at the person who shot you who you knew?
CUNNINGHAM: I'm still dealing with it.
GROSS: One of the things Scott Charles was talking about was trying to prevent people from seeking retribution...
GROSS: ...and instead stopping the cycle of violence.
GROSS: What's your attitude toward that?
CUNNINGHAM: I mean, that's somewhat true. You know? It's somewhat true, or somewhat supported, but I'm not really - I'm up in the air right now. I don't know how I feel about that situation. So I don't know where that - I don't know where that goes from here.
GROSS: You know the person who shot you.
GROSS: Did you report it to the police?
CUNNINGHAM: I don't want to see him in jail.
GROSS: Even though he shot you.
GROSS: Why don't you want to see him in jail?
CUNNINGHAM: Because he don't belong there. And another thing is, I would've lost credibility in my hood had I said who shot me. So that was one of the reasons why I didn't say nothing. And another reason is I don't believe he deserves to be there. So I didn't tell the police what happened.
GROSS: And your friends didn't tell the police, either.
CUNNINGHAM: I mean, I didn't really didn't ask them. They was just, you know, pretty much since I survived and I - you know, they didn't really ask me why they - they just asked me.
GROSS: Do you have a lot of friends who have been shot, too?
CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. Absolutely. I've lost a lot of friends to gun violence. I lost maybe one of the most influential men in my life in 1994 to gun violence.
GROSS: Who was that?
CUNNINGHAM: My Uncle Kenny.
CUNNINGHAM: He was gunned down, similar to the situation that I was in.
GROSS: So does this leave you any more afraid than you were before about gun violence?
CUNNINGHAM: Not for me. No, I'm not afraid. I'm afraid for, you know, the younger generation around, you know, in my area. Well, just period. You know, I'm just afraid for the younger generation, period, because they lost. They have no clue. And, you know, that's the only line of defense. Statistics shows that it's going to get worse, and I - that's - that's what I'm afraid of...
GROSS: Do you see...
CUNNINGHAM: ...the situation right now getting worse.
GROSS: Do you see younger people talking about guns or having guns and really not know what they're doing...
CUNNINGHAM: All the time.
GROSS: ...and what's going on?
CUNNINGHAM: All the time. Yesterday.
GROSS: Give me an - well, what did you see yesterday?
CUNNINGHAM: Yesterday. I seen a gun almost big as this microphone, the whole frame and all, in a child's hand. Yeah. I seen it. Just yesterday. It wasn't a threat to me, but I seen it.
GROSS: What was the child doing with it?
CUNNINGHAM: Just toting it. Just carrying it. Walking up and down the street with it.
CUNNINGHAM: That's just - that's just, like, what's going on right now.
GROSS: So you've gotten very close with Scott Charles.
GROSS: Who is the director of the Cradle to Grave program.
GROSS: Has the program been helpful?
CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, it's been helpful. I believe it's helped me, because I'm able to give back to, you know, the younger, you know, the younger generation, young males right now. But other than that, then I could say that it helps me, because I can really see, you know, like, one time I was in there, and I was just listening to the kids.
Like, Scott gave them a question and then, you know, one of them just came out and blurted, like, if I can't get him, I'm a go get his mom. And I was just, like, wow. Like, this is - this is sad to even hear this. But I already knew, like, that was what was going on. I already know that's how people think.
Because, you know, like, if they can't get - if they can't get the person that they want, then they'll get just anybody. The grandmother or mother - anybody. And that was just - it was able - I was able to step in right then and there and, like, let them know that that was coward. That was like a coward act, to even think or even say. Like, you think you tough? You going to hurt somebody that don't even know what's going on.
They don't know what's going on. They don't have no recollection of nothing. They don't carry guns. So you just going to go shoot a person because you can't get to the person that harmed you.
GROSS: Well, I wish you the best.
GROSS: And best wishes for, you know, a complete recovery.
GROSS: And I thank you very much...
CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.
GROSS: ...for talking with us.
CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for allowing me to, you know, share my story, and just thank you.
GROSS: Gregory Cunningham was shot last January. He's spoken to young people as part of the Cradle to Grave program at Temple University Hospital. We heard from the program's cofounders earlier in the show. On our website, you can watch a slideshow about Cradle to Grave. And we have a link to the program's website. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Alice McDermott's new novel. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Alice McDermott won the National Book Award for her 1998 novel "Charming Billy," and three of her other novels were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She's just published her seventh novel, called "Someone," and book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Endurance, going the distance, sucking up the solitude and the brine. I'm not talking about the glorious Diana Nyad and her instantly historic swim from Cuba to Key West, but of the ordinary heroine whose life is the subject of Alice McDermott's latest novel, "Someone." Ordinary is a word that's used a lot to describe McDermott's characters, mostly Irish and working class, mostly un-heroic in any splashy way.
McDermott's heroine is named Marie, and in "Someone," we readers hear, in a fragmented way, about the marathon span of her life: her Brooklyn childhood in the 1920s and '30s, her older brother Gabe, who becomes a priest, and then mysteriously decides it wasn't for him, her first romantic heartbreak and first job, her eventual husband and kids, and her lifetime's worth of bodily insults and illnesses.
It all sounds as tedious as swimming, stroke after stroke, through the water. And yet, in McDermott's unsentimental rendering, Marie's ordinary life becomes one for the record books. That's the spectacular power of McDermott's writing: Without ever putting on literary airs, she reveals to us what's distinct about characters who don't have the ego or eloquence to make a case for themselves as being anything special.
As much as it traces Marie's life, "Someone" is also a lyrical novel about neighborhood, about people whose world is limited to their block, their parish, their apartment house. McDermott keeps giving us glimpses of the rough, accidental communities that city neighborhoods then and now create: a game of stickball in the street, a group of women standing outside a church after Sunday mass, a line of customers in a corner deli.
One of the masterpiece moments in this novel arises out of Marie's first job. After she graduates high school, she's hired by the local undertaker, Mr. Fagin, who needs a girl to greet the mourners. Marie is given carte blanche to buy five good wool dresses from the Abraham and Straus Department Store, and set to work.
During lulls at the funeral home, one of her extra duties is to go up to the third floor, where Mr. Fagin's mother lives, and chat. There, in an apartment filled with small vases of rearranged funeral flowers, Marie usually finds old Mrs. Fagin sitting on her couch, surrounded by visiting nuns and neighborhood ladies, reviewing the pedigrees of the dead in their coffins below. Listen to how Marie describes the women's encoded conversations.
(Reading) Whatever part of the deceased's story was deemed, perhaps, too delicate for the old lady's ears, or, more likely, mine, would be acted out with a series of gestures and nods and sudden silences that I quickly came to be able to interpret as readily as the rest. A finger held to the side of a nose indicated a deception. A pantomimed bottle raised to the mouth meant there was a problem with drink. Eyebrows raised and words falling off into a long nod indicated sex.
McDermott, like the gossiping women she describes, is herself a master of silence and gesture. Nothing feels overwritten in "Someone." The small stories and conversations that make up the bulk of Marie's life are casual and so true to the conventional wisdom of their time period that, when McDermott suddenly hops forward a few decades, we're startled.
For example, for most of the novel, Marie's ex-priest brother Gabe is known to us as a gentle loner. So it's jarring to come upon a section of the novel where one of Marie's grown daughters refers to him knowingly as Uncle Gabe blade. That daughter's flip tone is much more of a shock than the revelation about Gabe's sexual orientation. In objection to her daughter's cheekiness, Marie tells her: I don't see the world the way you kids do.
That plain phrase - which we've all heard a hundred times - is one of the epiphanies of McDermott's novel. She makes us feel its truth: Our worlds may overlap, but they're not fully shared. Marie's children joke about a subject - sexuality - that Marie, as the product of pre-World War II Catholic Brooklyn, can't even name. In "Someone," McDermott summons up that vanished Brooklyn world and Marie's life in it, neither special nor heroic, just significant in its own right.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Someone," by Alice McDermott. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. Our blog is on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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