Injured by gunfire, young shooting victims struggle to recover : Shots - Health News Guns are now the leading cause of death among American children. And many more children are injured in shootings, putting them at risk for life-altering disability, pain, and mental trauma.

Guns are killing more U.S. children. Shooting survivors can face lifelong challenges

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Statistics show that guns are the leading means of death for children and teens in the U.S., and the number of kids being wounded by gunfire is going up. Those injuries can be devastating. WUSF's Stephanie Colombini has this story about how one gunshot changed a Florida teen's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF GYM EQUIPMENT CLANKING)

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: Aaron Hunter's at another physical therapy session in Sarasota. His therapist tells him to do 20 reps on the machine.

WHITNEY WALKER: All right. Go to 20, bud.

AARON HUNTER: How many?

WALKER: Twenty. Two-zero.

COLOMBINI: He's lying down with his feet against a plate. Aaron has to use muscles in both of his legs to thrust his body back, again and again, on a sliding platform.

WALKER: Bring those feet up, buddy, so you're more centered.

AARON: It burns.

WALKER: I know it does. We're getting tired, I know.

COLOMBINI: He's exhausted, but it's night and day from last summer, when simply walking was a challenge. Last June, Aaron was shot in the head. He was 13.

AARON: Well, I don't really know. All I remember it was I was picking mangoes with a friend, and I came back to my other friend's house, and then I remember waking up in the hospital.

COLOMBINI: The police in Sarasota are still investigating what exactly happened, but his mom, Erica Dorsey, thinks she knows. She suspects the kids were playing around with a gun, things went wrong, Aaron got hurt, and then a boy from the neighborhood came knocking on her door in a panic.

ERICA DORSEY: I just didn't believe it at first, but then the kid said, you hear those sirens? You could hear sirens in the distance, and he said, you hear that? Those are for him. They coming to pick him up. I was like, oh, Lord.

COLOMBINI: A helicopter flew Aaron 40 miles north to a trauma center in St. Petersburg at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. Brain surgeon George Jallo says it took hours to control Aaron's bleeding and to clear the debris the bullet left when it entered his brain just above his right ear and lodged halfway in. Aaron had survived, but there were still a lot of questions.

GEORGE JALLO: I know he's alive, but I don't know if he's going to be able to talk. I don't know if he might not be able to move an arm or a leg, or I don't know if he's going to be able to see out of one eye.

COLOMBINI: Aaron was one of 15 patients that All Children's treated for gunshot wounds last year, up from just five in 2019. Florida and the nation are experiencing similar spikes. The Centers for Disease Control estimates gun injuries among kids and teens surged in the U.S. in 2020 and remain high. Most of these shootings involve assaults, but some are accidents, like Aaron's seemed to be. Even those can be deadly. Dr. Chris Snyder leads the trauma program at All Children's.

CHRIS SNYDER: You can imagine if you get, like, a toddler that, you know, finds grandpa's handgun, and if they shoot themselves - we had a case where a toddler was shot through the heart. No amount of special equipment or training is going to save the patient at that point.

COLOMBINI: More children survive shootings than die from them, but those injuries can cause long-lasting disability, trauma and financial burden. A recent study found kids with gun wounds are much more likely to develop pain disorders and mental health problems, and medical costs for kids increased 17-fold in the year after their injury. The trauma can affect the entire family. Erica Dorsey says that months after Aaron left the hospital, his injury still dominated their lives.

DORSEY: It's exhausting because it's, like, therapy, doctors appointments - it's the follow-up.

COLOMBINI: The bullet damaged Aaron's vision, and he lost a lot of strength on one side of his body and had balance problems. He says it was really tough to move around.

AARON: Obviously, the hardest is getting back to walking. That was the hardest.

COLOMBINI: After a grueling summer of rehab, he was able to walk back into school on the first day of class last August, but he still had to leave four times a week for physical therapy.

AARON: (Grunting).

WALKER: Hang on to it.

COLOMBINI: Over time, Aaron's balance definitely improved. On this day, he held his own on a wobbly platform while bouncing a ball off a trampoline.

WALKER: It's getting faster. You better hurry up. Two more - one, two - good job.

DORSEY: Good job, boo.

COLOMBINI: His therapist discharged him in February, about eight months after he got shot. Aaron still has a bullet fragment left in his brain his surgeon thought was too dangerous to remove. That puts him at risk for seizures, so he takes medication to prevent them. Aaron's 14 now. At his birthday party last month, family and friends wore T-shirts with the hashtag #AaronStrong. The medical team at All Children's calls Aaron a miracle for how well he's recovered. Erica Dorsey says she thanks God every day that Aaron is alive, but she remembers other families who fared worse.

DORSEY: I just feel like any chance that I can, I'm going to stand up for the moms who kids didn't make it, who had to bury their children because of something that's so senseless and something that's so avoidable.

COLOMBINI: She's now a local activist, and tells parents who own guns to store them safely and educate kids about the harm they can cause. Aaron says he's staying away from guns. He says other kids should, too. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa.

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