Were it not for the tattoo on her left shoulder, peeking out from the neckline of her dress, no one would know that Sabrina Alexander is a walking statistic.

The 35-year-old woman is one of those "innocent bystanders" — someone who took a stray bullet when a conflict erupted.

She and countless others — children, adults, the elderly — walk among us every day.

Although studies are lacking in the number of people who are injured when they are not the intended target of gunfire, statistics from the National Institutes of Health indicate women are more likely to be hit by a stray bullet. 

In 2015, almost 27,000 Americans were injured by gunfire, according to Gun Violence Archive. Another 13,000 people were killed. So far in 2017 alone, 22,700 people have been shot; of those, 5,500 died.

Alexander, a certified nursing assistant, is more than a statistic. 

She is also a survivor — falling into that unique category of individuals whose view of life is changed by a single, defining moment.

Alexander is a survivor who is so grateful to be alive that she permanently displays her gratitude in the form of a tattoo encircling the scar from the bullet that almost took her life. The ink is a reminder of the day her two small sons almost lost their mother 13 years ago.

Walking into danger

On March 24, 2004, Alexander heard a commotion in her front yard and stepped outside to see two men arguing. One was the brother of the man she was dating. When her boyfriend saw Alexander step outside, he quickly instructed her to go back in and started walking over to ensure that she did.

But the bullet was faster. It came from the gun of the man who had walked into Alexander's yard with a loaded pistol and a grievance against one of her guests. This was the yard where Alexander's children played. Luckily, they were indoors. 

The details become irrelevant at the moment someone’s life hangs in the balance. Alexander never heard the shot that ripped through her flesh just below her shoulder blade and exited her rib cage, blowing through her lung as it stayed its course. At the moment of crisis, actions go from real time to slow motion, as if everything is a dream. Or in this case, a nightmare.

“I felt like I was on fire, but no one had enough water to put out the flames,” she recalled. Her boyfriend was talking to her, but she could not respond. There seemed to be no air inside her to push out words. Alexander remembers sitting upright on the sofa while he found the keys to the car.

“Had I slumped over, I would have died,” said Alexander, who instinctively knew she needed to keep her airways open because she sensed that one lung had collapsed. She also remembers being carried to the car. In retrospect, she cautions others to never move a gunshot victim and to call 911.

A vision of clouds

In these flashes of memory, Alexander recalls a nurse talking to her as she was being lifted onto a gurney. She was unable to speak. But she could hear her mother screaming in the hallway, “They’ve killed my baby!” It was on that swift ride into surgery that Alexander saw the clouds. Just clouds. Later she would be told she flat-lined three times and that the bullet had missed her heart by 2 inches.

“I did not see angels or God, just white clouds,” she recalls. “But I had a conversation with God. He said to me, ‘I will spare your life if you give me some of your time.’ ”

In her altered state, Alexander said, she remembers the words in the form of a request.

“It was more like a gentle nudging, like a conversation with a friend,” said Alexander, for whom the message hit its mark.

“I used to spend my Friday nights at the Daiquiri Shop, just partying and visiting and hanging out,” recalled Alexander, for whom “partying” never including drinking or drugs. She was just hanging out with friends, investing the time every Friday night “choosing the right outfit and getting all dressed up.”

“When Sundays came, I would say I was tired or I didn’t have anything to wear, or that I would go to church next Sunday,” said Alexander, who confessed that she never seemed to keep that promise. “But when it was time to go to the Daiquiri Shop on Friday nights, I always met up with my friends.”

A policeman stood outside Alexander’s hospital room door during her early recuperation, a stay that was predicted to be two months. But the young mother improved enough to go home a month after she was shot. She never returned to her West Bank home in a neighborhood she once believed a safe place to raise her children. Friends and family had found a new place for her to live and had moved her belongings to her new residence by the time she was discharged.

Alexander did not know the man who shot her. The gun was never found, but she said the shooter did go to prison, not for the crime he committed against her but for another shooting.

Reminders of survival

Today, Alexander wears a scar and is minus half of her lung, something that sometimes leaves her out of breath and sometimes at the point of fainting if she stands too long. The paralysis on her left side has been replaced with numbness. These are the reminders that her life could have ended when she was only 22 years old.

The tattoo is personal. Only a portion of it is visible if the neckline of a shirt allows it, and only someone who might ask would uncover the story behind it. 

It was two years after she was shot, Alexander said, that she thought of getting a tattoo to cover up the scar that marked the bullet wound.

“At first, I wanted to erase the scar. Then I realized I have a testimony,” said Alexander, for whom her tattoo is part of that attestation. The words “thank you” can be seen when a top she is wearing exposes part of her left shoulder. Upon closer inspection, one can see the scar, encircled with the sentiment “Thank you, (Jesus).” Instead of the name “Jesus,” there is a likeness of Christ drawn across her upper back.

“My biggest fear growing up was drowning or dying in a car wreck,” she said. She'd never had any fear of a stray bullet.

“I could have died in front of my kids,” she said. Even though she has put the event in its rightful place, Alexander said there are days when she gets out of the shower, starts to dry off her back and the tears come.

Today, life is good. Alexander fulfills her desire to nurture both at work and with her family.

“My spiritual demeanor is different,” Alexander said. “I just want to be around my family.” If she is not with family, Alexander said, she prefers to stay indoors.

Love in action

Her career in the nursing profession, she said, has enlarged her concept of family.

“I love helping people. At the end of the day, they (my patients) feel complete, and they are happy. I treat them as family. We respect each other. Anyone can apply for a job, but if your heart isn’t in it, it is just about the money,” Alexander said.

Sallie Jones Mykris saw this demonstration in action.

“Sabrina didn't show up at my house to complete a job request and receive a paycheck. She is a woman on a mission,” said Mykris, whose father received his hospice care at home under the watchful eye of Alexander and other caregivers. “Sabrina showed up to make a difference. I am forever in her debt for her willingness to be a part of my family during such a difficult time, and I am grateful to her family for sharing her with us. Her nature is unerringly optimistic and kind. She is made of wisdom and confidence.”

Mykris never knew of Alexander’s brush with death by a stray bullet. She only knew that when she called Alexander to let her know her father had died, Alexander immediately left dinner with her own family to be with her patient’s family.

“She shared our sadness as any family member would do,” Mykris said. “Sabrina meets each day with the inspiration of someone who was given a second chance.”

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HOW MANY CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE?

In 2015, almost 27,000 Americans were injured by gunfire, according to Gun Violence Archive. Another 13,000 people were killed. So far in 2017 alone, 22,700 people have been shot; of those, 5,500 died.

For every person killed with guns, two are injured.

When a gun is present in a situation of domestic violence, it increases the risk the woman will be killed fivefold.

Nearly one-third of the victims of stray bullets are children and nearly half are female.

41 percent of stray bullet victims are at home at the time of the incident and, of these, 68 percent are indoors.

(Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, Gun Violence Archives, University of California, Davis, Violence Prevention Research Program)