Gun wounds -- they happen in a flash, but healing is slow
Rasheeda Pennybaker and her daughter, Mohannahas, stand on Short Street in West Mifflin, where Rasheeda was the victim of a shooting in 2002.
Rasheeda Pennybaker's lower jaw was destroyed by a shotgun blast in 2002, when a drug dealer shot her and left her and her unborn daughter, Mohannahas, right, for dead.
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Even after she had been driven around for two days and not allowed to go home, and even after she was ordered out of a car in the dead of night, Rasheeda Pennybaker still thought that she wouldn't be harmed.
But all that would change in the next few minutes.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 18, 2002, Rasheeda and her fiance, Kenny Sharp, were standing in a garage on Short Street in West Mifflin as drug dealer Dion Horton pulled out a shotgun. Rasheeda knew Kenny was in deep trouble -- he had witnessed Dion killing another drug dealer a few days before. Still, she clung to the belief that someone would take her safely to her mom's house.
Then the first shot went off. She turned to see Kenny falling. "I saw Dion turn the gun toward me and I'm thinking 'Are you serious?' And I hear Kenny say, 'No, not her, God keep them.' Those were his last words."
Rasheeda, who was 19, was six months' pregnant. The baby was not Kenny's, but he had promised to help raise the child.
The gun's second shot hit Rasheeda's face from the left side, destroying most of her lower jaw. "It felt like heat went into my face. There was no pain, just heat straight through. I said to myself, 'If this is it, God, it's my time, but please keep my baby because she has not had a chance to live.' "
Three more shots erupted, killing Kenny. Then, "I felt the gun on my back, like the bottom edge of the barrel, and he shot, and my body shook, and I held my breath." She lay absolutely still. A few seconds later, she heard the car drive off. Somehow, she managed to get to her feet and made her way next door, where a Baptist minister called the police and an ambulance.
In the 10 years since then, doctors at UPMC have slowly rebuilt Rasheeda's face.
With the same fits and starts, she has rebuilt her life. She now lives in an apartment in Brookline. The fetus survived, and today is her live-wire, 10-year-old girl, named Mohannahas, in honor of her Cherokee great-grandmother.
Most remarkable of all, instead of putting her past behind her, Rasheeda has kept it by her side. She remains close to her dead fiance's mother. She keeps in regular touch with the prosecutor who handled the homicide trial and a detective who worked the case.
And she considers her doctors, plastic surgeon Guy Stofman, maxillofacial surgeon Mark Ochs and prosthodontist Steven Kukunas, part of her extended family.
"I say to myself, 'OK, God, I'm being blessed in all ways, from the doctors to the people who have come into my life.' The doctors' love and confidence in me keeps me going. Those doctors are my dads."
The mass shooting that killed 12 people Friday in Aurora, Colo., and the shootings that killed two and injured five at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic here in March show that gun violence can strike anyplace, anytime.
While most people will never encounter a gun assault, America continues to have one of the highest rates of gun deaths in the developed world.
Over the next two days, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will take a detailed look at two women who survived shootings in recent years and the medical treatment that helped to heal them.
At first glance, they seem very different.
Rasheeda, 29, is black, grew up poor, had a fiance who'd been involved in a criminal lifestyle, and knew the person who shot her. Surgeons are still working to repair her extensive injuries.
Jackquilyne Morris, 28, of North Strabane, is one of 12 women who were shot by a single assailant in August 2009 at the LA Fitness club in Collier. She is white, grew up middle-class, and did not know her shooter, George Sodini, who killed himself after his rampage. Her physical injuries were much less severe, although the last bullet fragment didn't work its way out of her body until March.
In other ways, they share a bond. Neither of them did anything to provoke her shooting -- they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Each benefited from the treatment skills that existed at a Level 1 trauma cen- ter, UPMC Mercy. And both have shown courage and an upbeat attitude while they struggled with the emotional aftereffects of what happened to them.
When Rasheeda went to meet Kenny Downtown on Feb. 16, 2002, she believed he was planning to go stay with his sister in New Jersey, and just wanted to say goodbye to her. She didn't find out until later that day that he had witnessed a killing, and she said that neither of them knew that they had been targeted to die.
Over the next two days, though, as Dion and his girlfriend kept stalling on taking her home, she became increasingly worried. Still, she willed herself to believe that she'd soon be back at her mother's house in Brookline, where she could finish out her pregnancy in peace.
Was she in denial? Certainly.
But maybe that resolve also helped her to survive, said the Rev. Michael Golphin, the man who helped her after she was shot, and who is now her pastor at Deliverance Baptist Church in Wilkinsburg.
"I think someone else in that situation might have given up on life, but the fact that she got up off the ground and walked for help ... she must have had a real will to live."
Although his home on Short Street is next to the garage where the shootings took place, Rev. Golphin heard nothing before Rasheeda pounded on his door. When he stepped out on his balcony, she was walking away from him, talking on her cell phone. Only later did she realize that no one could understand her because of the damage to her tongue and mouth.
"I said 'Can I help you?' and when she turned around, I could see she had some trauma to the face; I thought maybe somebody had thrown her out of a car, or she had been in a fight."
As she got closer, he could see how severe her injuries were. "It's amazing that she was even walking around with the trauma she had. I can't imagine what kind of pain she was in."
Rasheeda still doesn't remember pain -- just "a feeling like my body was on fire. I had to take off my coat and stuff, even though it was wintertime. It was like someone had set me on fire from the inside."
When she finally saw her face in the mirror, "it was like I was in biology class, and my first thought was 'Oh, my God, isn't this interesting, is that a tooth or is that a bone?' "
Once she realized no one could understand her, Rev. Golphin said, she began to point. She pointed to her back to show she was shot there; she pointed to her stomach to indicate she was pregnant; she pointed toward the garage to tell police that Kenny was still out there.
When the ambulance arrived, she walked to it. On the way to UPMC Mercy, the ambulance stopped so Pittsburgh paramedics could get in and "they wanted to put me under right away, but I wouldn't let them until we got to the hospital."
When Rasheeda arrived at UPMC Mercy, there was a hole through her tongue, her lower jaw was blown open and a major artery in her mouth was bleeding, Dr. Stofman said.
Surgeons stopped the bleeding, repaired the tongue, removed damaged tissue, put in a metal bar to which they could anchor tissue, and then took a muscle from her chest and channeled it up to cover the bottom of her mouth, where it remains to this day.
They held off doing any other major work until Mohannahas was born on May 23, by C-section.
Traditionally, doctors try to fix these major facial injuries by transplanting bones from the arm or leg, reshaping them, and transferring extra tissue to provide a blood and oxygen supply to the repositioned bone.
Over the next several years, doctors at West Penn and UPMC Presbyterian tried those techniques, Dr. Stofman said, but there was so much scarring around her lower mouth that they could never establish a sufficient blood supply to the bone.
By 2010, Rasheeda was back to square one on her jaw repair. That's when Dr. Ochs came up with a new plan. Instead of taking bones from elsewhere in her body, why not coax it to grow new bone?
After taking careful 3-D measurements of her face, he fashioned a titanium mesh "crib" that ran along the width of her lower jaw. Into that, he put a mixture of ground-up bone from her pelvis and a substance known as bone morphogenetic protein, which spurs the body to create new bone cells. Over the next eight months, Rasheeda's body grew a new lower jaw, and it is so sturdy that Dr. Kukunas has been able to put titanium posts into it to serve as a base for a prosthetic tooth-and-gum implant that she will get over the next several weeks.
"We're really doing regenerative medicine," Dr. Ochs said. "We're no longer transplanting a piece of bone we took out of you, but we're signaling your own body to take stem cells from your blood and turn them into osteocytes and make the bone in a defined area, These are techniques that didn't even exist five years ago."
Rasheeda said she will be thrilled to get her new teeth, which will finally allow her tongue to sit more easily inside her mouth. But even more than that, she longs for doctors to remove the tracheostomy opening she has had in her windpipe for several years.
It was put in because it was difficult to insert a breathing tube during her many surgeries, but it means she can't swim with her daughter for fear of getting water in her lungs.
Like many others who suffer serious facial injuries, Rasheeda has had to put up with stares and cruel remarks. "Some people ask what happened," she said. "Others would stop their kids from pointing. But older kids would be like, 'Oh, look at her, her face is effed up.' "
She works hard at smiling and being upbeat, but comments like that hurt her because "my baby looks just like me when I was coming up, and I felt like, 'God, why would you give me this child who looked just like me and my face is messed up?' "
She struggled with serious depression about four years ago, she said, but credits her doctors with continually improving her appearance and her church for helping her accept herself.
She first attended Deliverance Baptist because she wanted to thank Rev. Golphin. After hearing him preach, "when my mom helped me up, that's when he saw me, and he started crying. He never judged me, and the people in the church have all accepted me and have loved me from the beginning."
Over the years, Rasheeda has embraced all those who went through her crisis and recovery with her, especially her doctors.
The feeling is mutual. "Put it this way," Dr. Stofman said. "If the president and Rasheeda both called, I would call Rasheeda back first."
Rasheeda's surgeries still aren't finished, but she has learned the value of waiting.
"I feel it has taken as long as God needed it to, so I could grow from the inside out. My joy in living has become stronger. No matter what happens, I believe I'm still beautiful, I'm still a wonderful person, I'm still a child of God.
"And it will teach my daughter patience. I feel that loving who I am now -- a better, more mature, understanding woman ... it's a great blessing."
First Published July 22, 2012 12:00 am