Dr. Jarratt Pytell woke to gunshots in 2014 and ran from his house in gym shorts to stanch the wounds of Hakeem Carter, who had been shot six times by armed robbers and was bleeding profusely. The largest wound, in Carter’s abdomen, eventually would require 55 stitches to close.
Carter sees Pytell as the person sent to save his life.
After he was shot, Carter used what he thought might be his last breath to pray for help. Suddenly, there was Pytell standing over him, telling Carter he was a doctor and instantly getting to work, applying pressure to the wounds to stop the bleeding.
Even when Carter was still in intensive care, he felt a need to thank Pytell, said his best friend, Trevaughn Moore. “He wanted to see his guardian angel,” Moore remembers. “He said, ‘I have to meet this person.’ ”
Moore had thought about knocking on doors around Burgundy Street and Franklin Avenue, where Carter was shot in July 2014. But Carter thought that maybe Pytell had just been driving by when the shooting happened and had stopped his car to help. So they weren’t sure if canvassing the neighborhood would do any good.
But last week, thanks to information gleaned from a New Orleans police report, Carter, 25, talked by phone with Pytell, 29. It turns out that Pytell was a medical student at the time of the shooting; a few months ago, he relocated temporarily to Baltimore for a residency at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The voice on the phone seemed instantly familiar to Carter, who had been hearing Pytell’s voice in his mind for two years.
Pytell maintains that Carter’s surgeons are the true heroes. The pressure he applied to Carter’s injuries on the street corner just “bought him a little time,” Pytell said.
Pytell is being too modest, Carter said. “That little time he bought me, it took me a long way.”
The two men got to know each other through a long conversation on Wednesday. They determined that they had often moved within each other’s orbits in New Orleans. For instance, the grocery store where Carter now stocks shelves is where Pytell and his wife shopped regularly until their recent move.
And since he was a teenager, Carter had taken the same route, down that section of Franklin Avenue, as he walked home from jobs in the French Quarter and on Canal Street.
“We probably saw each other at some point,” said Pytell, who had lived near that corner for seven years while he attended medical school at LSU and, before that, taught at Drew Elementary School on St. Claude Avenue as a Teach for America participant.
He said a desire to improve the poor health he saw in his students and their families led him to attend medical school and focus on public health.
The two men also talked about the shooting, which happened about 4:30 a.m. on a Thursday as Carter was walking home from his job at a Bourbon Street karaoke bar.
Carter remembers Pytell convincing him that he would survive his grave injuries.
“He was persuasive,” said Carter, whose speech was badly impaired because his mouth had been ripped to shreds on one side by a shotgun blast that took out seven teeth. He had first tried to protect his face by blocking the gun with his right arm. That shot had eaten away much of his wrist and caused damage all the way up his right arm.
So Pytell told Carter not to talk but instead to use his uninjured left hand to signal thumbs-up or thumbs-down as Pytell poked and prodded and tried to describe the extent of Carter’s injuries to a 911 operator.
Others also helped. A neighbor applied pressure to Carter’s wrist while Pytell’s girlfriend, Emily Steffan, who is now his wife, brought a towel and other items from their house.
Carter said he got off the telephone Wednesday with a new sense of peace. “Dr. Pytell probably was the closest person who went through that situation with me,” he said. “So I felt like that conversation was something I needed.”
Carter is well aware that some people see tattooed young black men victimized by gun violence and assume that they somehow brought it on themselves. It was important to Carter that Pytell know that he wasn’t a gangster or a drug dealer. “When I think about my appearance, I wondered if he’d thought that or if the other neighbors thought that,” he said.
Last week, after The Advocate published a story about his recovery, even some co-workers and people he’s known for a long time expressed surprise. While they knew he’d been badly shot, most had assumed he was living a criminal life at the time, not merely walking home from work.
Looking back, Pytell remembers how inadequate he felt, faced with Carter’s extensive wounds. “That sort of experience never leaves you,” he said.
“Sadly, in New Orleans, we get used to seeing headlines about people shot. I lost a few of my former students,” Pytell said. But most of the time, he could maintain some distance because he only read about the deaths in the newspaper or on Facebook.
In 2013, however, Pytell had an unnerving brush with gun violence himself while at the Mother’s Day second-line in the 7th Ward during which 19 people were injured by gunfire. There, he helped a few people with minor injuries.
But this was different. Pytell wasn’t with a medical team in a hospital. It was just him and Carter, in the dark, on a street corner near his door.
Later, he read a short news item that gave only Carter’s age and the time and location of the shooting. He had checked with the surgery team at the hospital, so he knew Carter had survived, but nothing beyond that.
Without more information, it was hard not to wonder what a young man was doing out at that hour. “And yet, here’s Hakeem, this beautiful kid, a completely innocent victim, a good guy who had worked all night,” said Pytell, adding that Carter’s story is a good reminder to him as a doctor not to become so numb to violence that he doesn’t see the people affected by it.
The two men made plans to get together when Pytell and his wife return here for a visit in a few months. “We won’t come back without making it happen,” Pytell said.
Before they got off the phone, Carter jotted down Pytell’s address in Baltimore and tried to decide what to send him.
“I was thinking of sending him six flowers, to represent each wound he tried to treat that night, along with a picture and a letter expressing how important his work was to me surviving,” Carter said.
More than anything, he said, “I want him to know how grateful I am.”