When Aaron Willis walked across the stage to accept his high school diploma, the crowd chanted his name, each round growing louder, “Aaron! Aaron! Aaron!”
While every graduation walk is a triumph in its own right, Aaron’s was especially victorious; he was told his freshman year that he would never walk again.
When he was 15 years old, Aaron was riding around Wynwood on the orange bicycle his big brother had gifted him. Anonymous bullets shattered the evening ride. He was hit and left paralyzed from the waist down.
But on graduation day for the Booker T. Washington High School class of 2016, Aaron gingerly stepped onto the stage supported by robotic legs. The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis loaned him his legs for the day. He’d practiced for weeks.
A physical therapist spotted Aaron from behind as he walked across the stage, making sure the $150,000 experimental exoskeleton didn’t fail him.
Aaron’s classmates and teachers lept to their feet, clapping and cheering, celebrating a different kind of achievement.
Aaron took one deliberate, motorized step after another. And for close to 10 minutes, Aaron stood on borrowed legs, the full measure of his lean, 6’2” frame, briefly the tall kid in the room again.
Just about every major media outlet in South Florida, including WLRN, was there to document Aaron’s walk. Ahead of the ceremony, in his wheelchair, a press gaggle surrounded him:
What excitement are you feeling right now?
Do you feel like you’ve inspired your colleagues, your classmates?
How important is that to you to walk across the stage?
Aaron, what’s next for you?
Please tell me: How proud are you at this moment?
“I’m very proud of myself because it could have been very easy for me to just give up or, like, just say, ‘forget everything,’” Aaron told them.
No one pressed him on what he meant about forgetting everything. He didn’t talk about the “dark place” then—about the times he stopped eating, stopped showering, stopped leaving his room.
If hints were already there that six months later Aaron would take fistfuls of pills and say, “I just want to die,” nobody questioned it in that jubilant moment.
Aaron became paraplegic nearly halfway through his freshman year of high school—the result of a single bullet that shattered a vertebrae, ricocheted through his back and lodged itself in his left shoulder, forcing him into a wheelchair and sending shockwaves through his life that, four years later, still shake him and his family, always threatening to knock them back down.
Aaron is just one of the 866 children and teenagers who were rushed to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital for gunshot wounds over the last decade.
The majority of those kids, 88 percent, survived.
Although gun injuries are the second leading cause of death among children and teenagers in Florida and the United States after motor vehicle injuries, there is relatively little known about the physical and mental impact of gun-related injuries.
Of the research about the leading causes of death for children and teens, studies about gun injuries account for less than 1 percent of publications, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
And public health researchers and epidemiologists say there’s even less information about young survivors. The studies that do exist suggest long-term risks of trauma: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
In Miami-Dade County, the hundreds of young adults who were shot in childhood over the past decade have come of age without much examination into the invisible scars they carry.
It was a Wednesday evening on Dec. 19, 2012. Aaron was riding his bike home through Wynwood after hanging out with friends. A white car with tinted windows pulled up next to him.
He was on his cell phone, flirting with a girl. He didn’t hear the gunshots - at first.
“Then I started noticing that they’re flying by my ear,” said Aaron.
Aaron fell off his bicycle; he’d been hit.
“When I tried to get up I couldn’t feel nothing below my waist, so I thought everything got cut off or something,” he said. “I thought I was over here, and my legs was over there.”
The car sped off. No one knows who shot Aaron or why.
The ambulance carried Aaron to Jackson’s Ryder Trauma Center—a place that treats such a high volume of gunshot wounds that the U.S. Army sends medics to train there before deploying to battlefields.
“Really what we're saying is Miami reproduces the violence that they're about to see in Afghanistan or Iraq or other places that are literally at war,” said Dr. Tanya Zakrison, one of the trauma surgeons at Ryder. “Because we, I guess, actually do have our own war going on. We just don't call it that.”
There are five trauma rooms at Ryder. They smell of dried blood and cleaning solution.
Each one has ultrasound units to search for internal bleeding, tool kits that resemble fishing tackle boxes full of hoses and scalpels and clamps, and raised hooks for bags of blood and fluids. The trauma room specially equipped for children has a bassinet alongside the bed.
Every space is equipped with a heater. Cold trauma patients have a tendency to bleed more.
When he arrived at Ryder, Aaron remembers the room was crowded with strangers working to save his life. He had a collapsed lung. Somebody cut into his chest and inserted a couple of tubes.
When he woke up the next day, doctors came into his room and delivered the news: Aaron would never walk again.
“At that point I was just like, ‘Well, why I had to get shot?'"said Aaron. “And then I had a lot of anger.”
Dr. Melisa Oliva, a pediatric psychologist who works at Jackson, spends a lot of time counseling young gunshot survivors who come through the hospital.
She said the risk to young people’s mental health is especially high when they leave the hospital with severe injuries that prevent them from going back to what they considered to be their regular lives.
Oliva added there’s a much higher risk of depression and anxiety and posttraumatic stress.
“And I’ve had patients even become suicidal,” said Dr. Oliva.
She said other symptoms include anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares. Some kids can get panicky and nervous. Some shut down and avoid talking about the incident.
And sometimes the young survivors don’t want to go back to the place or activity they were participating in when they got shot.
“I've worked with some patients that were shot, for example, riding their bicycle outside and they said they will never want to ride a bike again,” said Oliva.
A study out of the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas found kids with gunshot wounds were at a higher risk of developing PTSD. Researchers looked at the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder in a sample of children and teens who had been admitted to the emergency room for all sorts of traumatic injuries—everything from car crashes to burns. About half of the kids who got shot developed PTSD.
A few years ago, Jackson instituted a policy that pediatric gunshot victims automatically get a visit from someone like Oliva in the behavioral health department who can screen for mental health trauma and arrange treatment.
While he was hospitalized, Aaron had a mental health therapist he really liked. That stopped for a couple of months when he returned home. His schedule was packed with doctor appointments and physical therapy. Counseling wasn’t a priority.
After spending five weeks at Jackson, Aaron couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital.
“I wanted to actually see how I fit in the real world, like with a wheelchair. I was kind of excited for that,” said Aaron.
Fitting back into his world involved a lot of changes.
“First it was like, I gotta get used to looking up at people,” he said. “I’ve always been the tall guy in the crowd. Even now, I'm 6’2, but even like short people, I gotta look up to them.”
Even though he was a football player before getting shot, he said pushing himself around in a wheelchair was a workout.
“I had to get used to using my arms to get around instead of my feet. I figured out that my arms are not like my feet,” said Aaron. “They get tired really quick.”
Aaron didn’t immediately return to Booker T. Washington High. For nearly a year, a home-school teacher from Miami-Dade County Public Schools taught him in his Overtown apartment.
It was lonely.
Aaron went back to Booker T. in time for his sophomore year.
“Going back it was like a parade. People actually missed me,” he said. “A bunch of friends, a bunch of teachers—even the principal was happy that I was back.”
Practically everyone at school knew Aaron’s story. They saw it on the news, heard about it in the hallways.Aaron Willis in his new dorm room at FIU | Photo: Marsha Halper
Shortly after he was shot, some of his classmates met with counselors from the school district’s crisis intervention team to process what happened, and teachers were given a workshop on how to serve the needs of young people with traumatic experiences.
Aaron became something of a celebrity in his black wheelchair. Two of his friends, a “big dude” and “an even bigger dude,” appointed themselves his “bodyguards,” wheeling him around the hallways.
And the head of Miami-Dade public schools, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, became a family friend, checking in on Aaron and his family at home.
But after a while, the excitement of returning to school dissipated. The gunshot that left Aaron paralyzed had also left him unable to control his bowels and bladder.
“My poop was unpredictable,” he said.
The school offered Aaron an aide who could have helped him change the adult diapers he now had to wear, but he preferred his mother over a stranger.
When accidents did happen, he went to the office to call his mom to come and clean him. Their apartment is about five minutes away from Booker T., so he didn’t have to wait long. But it was still embarrassing.
“While I'm sitting there, everybody else is just smelling the poop and all that, and I'm like, ‘Wow. That's pretty awkward,” he said.Katherine Beaton and Sammie Willis in their son Aaron's room. Their lives have also been changed by the shooting that left their son paralyzed. | Photo: Marsha Halper
Katherine Beaton was already a stay-at-home mom, but after Aaron returned to school, she didn’t leave their apartment during school hours just in case he called.
“I make sure I never go nowhere because I'm not sure when he's going to call me,” she said.
She kept a Miami Heat duffel bag in the trunk of her car, Aaron’s “care package.” It had diapers, hand towels, soap, moist wipes, a sheet, plastic bags and a change of clothes.
When she arrived to the school she wheeled her son into a teacher’s lounge for privacy.
Sometimes Aaron couldn’t bring himself to resume whatever coursework he was learning. He’d ask his mom to take him home.
Through all this, Aaron kept up his grades, earning A’s and B’s, pushing himself in physical therapy and romancing girls.
“It hasn’t really stopped my dating life. I was surprised by that,” said Aaron. “Girls still be wanting to talk to me in the chair; I’m like, ‘Alright.'"
Still, throughout the rest of his high school years darkness would come in waves.
“My dark place is like I stop doing everything. Sometimes I even stopped taking showers. I stop eating. I stop going outside. I stop leaving the room, period,” he said.
His dad, Sammie Willis, said the first time it happened it was like Aaron’s body was consuming itself.
“He wouldn't eat, he would stay in that room and he started really drifting away,” his dad said. “His pelvic bone started protruding out like a poor horse you see standing out front of a stable that hadn’t eaten for months.”
Aaron's dad got in touch with a psychologist at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Aaron returned to therapy. He started managing his depression with medication.
Together, the family was learning how to navigate those dark spaces.
After graduation, Aaron was looking forward to starting his freshman year at Florida International University in the fall.
"I got a kid that likes learning,” his dad said. “He despises getting bored.“
But before Aaron could start college he needed two operations that would make it possible for him to better control his bladder and bowels.
On Aug. 1, Aaron had surgery. His doctors said he would be able to start college in January.
Aaron had been feeling pretty good. He stopped taking the medication for his depression. And then in November, a few weeks before the anniversary of his shooting, Aaron slipped into the dark space again.
Two days before Thanksgiving, he pulled himself onto the living room sofa. His dad was lying on the floor watching TV.
Aaron said, “Daddy, I’m sorry.”
His dad asked, “For what?”
Aaron replied, “I’m just sorry,” and he closed his eyes.
What Aaron didn’t say was that he had swallowed a bunch of pills.
Aaron slept the whole day. His mom kept checking on him. He seemed drowsy, but OK.
The next day Aaron opened his eyes, he told his dad, “I didn’t mean to wake up.”
Aaron went to the bathroom and took more pills. Then he went into his parents’ bedroom and told his dad what he’d done.
His dad, Sammie Willis, told him, “Boy, I don’t hate you because I understand you. I feel what you’re going through.’”
Aaron's dad also uses a wheelchair. He has trouble breathing and suffers from chronic joint pain.
He asked his son, “Aaron, you really want to die?”
“I just want to die,” Aaron told his dad. Aaron said he didn’t want to be in a wheelchair anymore.
Aaron's dad looked into his son’s eyes and told him if he wanted to commit suicide, “You’re going to do it right here laying in my arms.”
They laid together in the bed, face to face. Aaron asked his dad not to call the paramedics.
His mom sat in the living room with her phone in hand, waiting to call 911.
This was Aaron’s choice.
About 30 minutes passed. Aaron had sharp pains in his stomach. He started to throw up. Aaron's dad told him he didn’t want him to suffer. He asked again about calling for help.
Aaron said he started to feel pain in his legs, and he said that’s when he finally gave his parents permission to call for help.
Once more, an ambulance rushed him to Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Aaron was treated for the overdose. He stayed in the hospital for five days.
He’s back on his medication for the depression now.
See a list of mental health resourcesKatherine Beaton helps her son Aaron Willis get settled into his new FIU dorm.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Aaron finally moved into his first-floor dorm room at Florida International University’s Modesto Maidique campus.
This is his first semester. Aaron received a $26,000 scholarship from the Maya Macey Foundation for kids who have overcome adversity. He plans to study psychology and marketing.
Aaron got a room to himself: cinderblock walls, one wood desk, one plastic wheeled chair, a dresser, a window that looks out onto a sidewalk, and a twin bed--the extra-long kind you only seem to find in college dorms.
Two of Aaron’s childhood friends, now college classmates, helped him and his mom unpack.
The first order of business: take the standard-issue coil mattress off the bed. Aaron will eventually get a special, extra-soft hospital mattress that helps with his injuries. In the meantime, he’ll sleep on a slightly underinflated blow-up bed.
The second order of business: unpack the shoes. Aaron pulled out pair after pair of pristine sneakers from his green duffle bag.
One of his friends, Malik St. Louis, was especially impressed by a pair of two-toned white and camel-colored Nike Air Griffeys.
“Griffeys? That’s a grown man pair of shoes,” said St. Louis.Aaron Willis and his classmates hangout after unpacking. | Photo: Marsha Halper
While Aaron’s mom, Katherine Beaton, pulled shirts out of a suitcase and placed them on hangers, she imparted some last-minute mom wisdom.
“You gotta buckle down, Aaron,” she said. “Make sure you finish college.”
And she told him to enjoy campus life. Don’t come home too much.
When Aaron is at his family’s Overtown home, his mother worries every time he leaves the apartment. The sound of sirens send her rushing to the window, searching for her son.
“I’m not coming home,” Aaron said with a wry smile. They all laughed.
The suitcases were empty. More friends showed up. It was time for Aaron’s mom to leave the college boys to their afternoon.
“I’m really looking forward to being on campus on my own,” said Aaron.
And what he’s most nervous about?
“The same thing, just being all alone.”
“Switchboard offers free and confidential telephone counseling, crisis intervention, suicide prevention and information and referral services.“National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
“The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”National Alliance on Mental Illness
“The NAMI HelpLine is a free service that provides information, referrals and support to people living with a mental health condition, family members and caregivers, mental health providers and the public.”