Two years ago, while Hakeem Carter was walking home from his job at a Bourbon Street karaoke bar, three men jumped out of a truck and pointed guns at him. When he told them he had no money, one man, armed with a shotgun, blasted him at point-blank range in the stomach, opening a massive wound that took surgeons 55 stitches to close and cost Carter his spleen and a kidney.
Blown to the ground, Carter tried to play dead, but he couldn’t stop his body from twitching involuntarily. So the gunman continued to pull the shotgun’s trigger, knocking out seven of Carter’s teeth, shredding the left side of his mouth and his right wrist and sending hundreds of shotgun pellets into the rest of body.
Today, after multiple surgeries, Carter, now 25, is a walking miracle.
To those shopping at a local grocery, he simply looks like a handsome young man stocking shelves.
But Carter finds it hard to look in the mirror, to view the face that plastic surgeons rebuilt. His pulse races when a car drives up behind him. Nervous about being outside when it’s dark, he walks directly to his car after work and drives straight home. A counselor once suggested that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder — an assessment with which he agrees.
In a city where roughly two-thirds of gun-violence victims survive their injuries, thousands of survivors can likely relate to Carter’s fears. In 2014, the year that Carter was shot, 138 people were killed by gun violence in the city while 294 survived, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher.
But survivors often seem to receive little attention or care, which has frustrated Carter as he’s tried to find a counselor he can afford or a dental clinic that can replace the seven teeth still missing from his mouth. He also hoped, vainly, that his assailants would be arrested, so that he could quit looking over his shoulder.
“If I died, would I have been more important?” he asks.
He remembers that the gunman with the shotgun had the number 2187 tattooed on his arm, bracketed by flames — likely related to what’s become a fairly common tattoo of the number 187, the designation for homicide in the California penal code. So he’d like to get the word out about the tattoo, in hopes that police would finally be able to make an arrest.
And if it were possible, Carter would like to find the doctor who, he believes, God sent to save his life that night.
He thinks he was shot about 4:30 a.m. that July 10. The gunmen soon fled, taking his wallet and his backpack, though it held only the handbook he’d been given as a new employee at his job and his work uniform shirt, an orange polo, that he’d worn for only two days.
He remembers lying on the ground near Franklin Avenue and Burgundy Street, bleeding profusely. He screamed, but no one came out of the nearby houses. Then, using what he thought might be his last breath, he prayed.
Before he knew it, a doctor got out of a car. Through lips torn in half, Carter tried to say that it was no use, that he was probably going to die. No way, said the doctor, who called 911 as he worked on Carter, cutting away his clothes, applying pressure to the worst wounds and telling paramedics on the phone how much blood Carter would need in transfusions to replace what he’d lost.
Carter also remembers the doctor ordering bystanders to stop taking pictures of the grisly scene.
“I wanted to bring a bouquet of flowers to him, but I can’t find him,” Carter said.
Once at the hospital, Carter was rushed into surgery and stuck full of tubes. When he woke up, he couldn’t speak. His charts said, “Unknown male.”
As is his routine, he had called his mother before he left work early that morning. He told her he would be headed home on foot on the route he’d often taken from his jobs to their house near Franklin Avenue.
His mom told him she’d heat up a plate of pasta on the stove for him.
When she woke up, the plate was still there.
That was unlike her son, who didn’t run the streets or go to nightclubs, she said. If he was walking during the day, he might make a stop at their church, Abundant Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church. Other than that, he was either at work or at home, hanging out with his best friend, Trevaughn Moore, or playing with his toddler nephew, the apple of his eye.
His mother filed a missing-person’s report and looked high and low. “We searched for him for three days,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hakeem Carter was in the ICU, realizing that no one knew where he was. So he decided to use the only part of his body that felt normal: his left hand. He realized that he could, with only five fingers, give them Moore’s phone number. So, when nurses came into the room, he began moving his fingers, number after number. They got a piece of paper, watched his fingers and dialed Moore’s number.
Moore had spent three days with Carter’s younger brother, searching. He’d called all the area morgues and hospitals, asking for Carter or for a John Doe patient but was told there was no one. So when he got the call, he told his boss he had to leave work. He called Carter’s mother.
“I think we found Hakeem,” he told her. “He’s at University Hospital. He’s in ICU in critical condition. But he’s alive.”
Soon, church members flocked to Carter’s bedside. Bishop Ryan Warner traded shifts with his mother and grandmother, making sure someone was always there. When Carter came home two weeks later, for his grandmother’s birthday party, he was walking weakly on his own.
As they left the hospital, one worry was foremost in Carter’s mind: Given his facial injuries and swelling, would his nephew be scared of him? But when they reached his grandmother’s house, his nephew’s big hug signaled to Carter that maybe he wasn’t the monster he’d feared.
To properly reflect Carter’s remarkable recovery, Moore helped choose pajamas for his friend, emblazoned with Batman and Superman emblems.
Carter wonders if the shotgun pellet still lodged near his left eye, one of six left in his face, is what causes his eyes to burn when he cries or looks into bright sunlight. Although more than 200 pellets have been removed, dozens more remain and are working their way to the surface of his shoulder and his chest.
He can eat only small meals, and he suffers with nausea from a stomach that had to be sewn shut smaller than it was. He walks with a limp sometimes, from the shot he took in the left hip. And a tendon that came completely loose when his wrist was shot makes his fingers limp in his right hand.
Though Warner and others believe he was given a second chance for a reason, Carter sometimes wonders what that reason is. “I’m not sure yet,” he said.
Moore, who still spends time with Carter every day, knows that his friend’s recovery is not finished.
Still, though Carter has put aside his super-hero pajamas, Moore still sees him that way.
“Most people might not be able to walk or talk after being shot six times,” Moore said. “But he’s working, doing stock work? No one does that.”