A Stray Bullet, A Shattered Life
The human toll of violence in Camden, New Jersey is told through the story of Jorge Cartagena: a nine-year-old boy, blinded for life by a stray bullet. Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on August 7, 2011.
Ten days after being shot in the head and blinded for life, the 9-year-old Camden boy has it all figured out.
"God hates me," Jorge Cartagena says with sad certainty.
"No, Jorge," says his grandmother Manuela Pintor, who has raised him from infancy. "It could have happened to anybody. It could have happened to me."
No matter that he's a favorite of his principal at Cramer Elementary and that even his crossing guard has sent a get-well card to him at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Jorge appears to believe, says Pintor, that bad behavior has sealed his fate.
From his bed, he tells family members that he is going to be a better person and that they must do the same, scolding anyone who uses profanity in his presence. He plans, he says, to start going to church.
"I saw God, and he sent me back," says Jorge. "He said it wasn't time to die. He was going to give me another chance."
On the afternoon of Monday, June 27, Jorge became one of the 103 people who have been shot in Camden in the first seven months of 2011 - up 24 percent for the same period last year. The city's 26 homicides, counted separately, are up 37 percent.
Jorge, who prefers the Anglo pronunciation "George," was walking home through East Camden to feed his pet parakeets when a bullet sliced through his temple, damaging optic-nerve fibers behind his right eye and exiting through his left.
The alleged assailant, Greg Rawls, 29, who police say was aiming at someone else, was quickly arrested. Rawls, who has served time on drug convictions, is behind bars on second-degree aggravated assault and weapons charges, with bail set at $450,000.
At Children's, pediatric ophthalmologist William Katowitz remembers the surgical team's conversation as the remnants of Jorge's left eye were removed and a silicone ball placed in its socket.
"We talked about how terrible it is that life can be determined by millimeters," he says. "A millimeter this way and he dies; a millimeter that way, and he keeps his eyes."
Apparently, Jorge turned his head to look behind him when the shooting began, sparing his brain but dooming his sight.
Jorge's loud, loving Puerto Rican family is not unfamiliar with the violence of Camden streets. Two of Pintor's brothers have been shot, one fatally. Still, nothing has prepared them for the breathtaking brutality with which Jorge's sight was taken before he began fourth grade. Or for the boy's reaction to the tragedy.
After waking up from several days of heavy sedation, he remembers.
"I was shot," he whispers.
His shocked grandmother blurts out: "No, you weren't shot. Who told you that?"
The next day, he worries about his eyes. "I'm real messed up right now. I can't see nothing," he tells Pintor. She replies, "You got your arms, you got your legs, you got your heart. . . . What more do you need?"
The day after brings panic. "Where's my eyes? Where's my eyes? I can't see!"
Initially, doctors had hoped that Jorge might eventually glimpse shadows with the damaged right eye. Before leaving Children's, Jorge requests and gets the truth from Katowitz - that he'll probably never see anything.
Jorge waits until the room is quiet. "Is everybody gone?" he asks Pintor, who says yes. "Mommy, I'm going to be blind!" he weeps in her arms.
Hours later, he is repeating a version of Pintor's mantra:
I got my arms, I got my legs, I got my nose, I got my senses. . . .
Still, Jorge smiles for his adored sister, Yamina Cartagena, 2, who makes everyone nervous by pulling and poking him like her personal teddy bear. Visitors pack his room, including his mother, Isabel Cartagena, who gave Jorge to Pintor to raise, and who has drawn closer since the tragedy.
Pintor, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico as a toddler, says she can't read or write because she was kept out of school to cook and clean. She has diabetes, high blood pressure, and, since a work-related back injury, lives on disability benefits.
Jorge has been her eyes, reading for her. He calls himself the "man of the family."
Pintor sleeps beside him every one of the 25 nights he spends in medical facilities. It is she whom Jorge - "Boobie" to family members - calls out for at all hours, day and night.
Even as he shows flashes of the outgoing kid who loved video games, basketball, and rap music, Jorge jumps at every noise and cries with sudden, inexplicable pain in various parts of his body - now his neck, now his foot, now one knee, then the other.
Later, Children's surgeons will cover his silicone eye with a hand-painted plastic replica of a pupil and iris. For now, he is convinced that his eyes make him ugly, that kids will laugh at him.
Shortly after Jorge checks into Weisman Children's Rehabilitation Hospital in Marlton on July 9, a cheerful recreational therapist named Kaylee McGuire meets with him to find out his interests.
When he taps out a beat with objects on the table in front of him, she sees an opening.
"Oooh, do you like music?" Jorge says no, but grins. "Who do you like to listen to?"
The boy asks a sleep-deprived Pintor to answer for him. "He likes Eminems and stuff like that," she says.
Jorge tells McGuire he has a guitar, but Pintor reminds him that sister Yamina stepped on it and now it makes funny noises. "It goes kwaak-kwaak!" says Pintor, and they all laugh.
Can he cook? Pintor remembers Jorge once made eggs.
"Well, listen up," says McGuire. "In the next few weeks, in recreation therapy, we're going to try out different games and activities and things that you can leave this hospital knowing how to do, OK?"
"But I can't see."
"I know. But that's why you're here. So that you can learn to do things differently and still have things to do that are fun, even though you can't see. Because, guess what: There's a lot of people who can't see."
In the first days of therapy, tears stream from Jorge's useless eyes. Over two weeks, he practices walking up and down stairs and tying his shoes, and begins to navigate with more confidence. "We taught him to tap into his other senses," says occupational therapist Stefanie Hak.
One day, recalls Weisman social-work director Andrea Van Vreede, he "was walking down the hall, shouting hi to every staffer in other patients' rooms: 'Good morning, Joe! Good morning, Marlese!' " - so attuned to his surroundings that the identifications were flawless.
Her grandson's therapy gives Pintor time to try to secure a ground-floor apartment and attend the July 14 bail hearing for the man who allegedly blinded her Boobie. The family waits three hours for a glimpse of Rawls and is upset that attempted murder is no longer included in the charges against him. "My baby's going to pay for this guy's mistake for the rest of his life," Pintor says.
Shortly before noon July 21, Pintor is at the Golden Pearl Chinese Restaurant on Admiral Wilson Boulevard buying cigarettes when, according to police, five state troopers exchange gunfire with a man they saw robbing the restaurant at gunpoint.
During the firefight, another customer yanks Pintor out of the way as a bullet whizzes past. She goes to her sister's house to vomit, then returns to Jorge's side.
The next morning, on the hottest day of 2011 so far, Jorge comes home. Wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap, he climbs the staircase to the sweltering second-story apartment on Benson Street as family members hover.
All afternoon, visitors wipe dripping brows with washcloths and jockey for position in front of a box fan.
When a representative from the Camden Board of Education arrives and tells Jorge, who has been bullied, that he will probably attend a school for the blind in Philadelphia, Jorge asks: "Is it a school where they will beat me up?"
That night, Evelyn Glenn, Jorge's former youth counselor and now a close friend, brings a small air conditioner for the child's room, where Pintor will sleep on the floor, next to his bed.
As the days pass, the 9-year-old clings to the tiniest possibility that he may someday see something - anything - as his right eye heals.
At the same time, he stops chastising his family for cursing and is himself swearing so much that they take him to church.
"Jorge," Pintor sighs, "you are a grouchy old man."
At night, Pintor hears her grandson pray. "He say, 'God, can you make me a miracle? I don't want to be blind.' "
Cindy Fine, nursing director at Weisman, says she would be shocked "if Jorge had accepted it by now. . . . I know spinal-injured guys who still harbor the hope of walking. You never give up hope."
Jorge has had his first encounters with braille and with using a cane, and the Camden School District is evaluating him for school placement, possibly at the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia.
"He's in for significant relearning," starting with daily activities, said Gerald Kitzhoffer, director of the Overbrook School. "Imagine putting toothpaste on a toothbrush without seeing," he said. "Another thing is travel skills. He'll have to depend on people to move safely, then learn to move independently, unable to see obstacles."
His great-aunt Elizabeth Del Valle, a home health-care aide, will work with him. Glenn and a therapist will work with him on psychological issues.
Twenty-six days after the shooting, Jorge is visiting his great-aunt and -uncle and young cousins when he announces he wants to go to a neighborhood playground. It will be his first real walk on the streets of Camden, and the excitement in the room is, as Pintor would say, "off the hook." The adults reassure themselves: This is a relatively safe neighborhood - not where Boobie got shot.
As the sun sets, the entourage moves slowly up the sidewalk, with Aunt Elizabeth Del Valle guiding Jorge's right arm while Jorge uses his left to pour a bottle of water over the head of cousin Gaby Del Valle, as the child ducks, weaves, and laughs.
At the park, Jorge clambers up the slide as Pintor screams warnings at the boy until she's hoarse. Once down, he raises his arms triumphantly and goes back for more. The third time, he hands his hat and dark glasses to Gaby before sliding into the darkness.