The following story contains graphic content.
When a bullet pierces flesh, it ripples through the tissue in a chaotic fury. It will inevitably shred nerves, blood vessels and muscle. It might fracture bone. Deposit in an organ. Or zip out through another body part, leaving blood to ooze from the open pit.
Sometimes, the bullet carves a fatal path: About 36,000 Americans were killed by a firearm in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of those deaths — almost two-thirds — were the result of suicide and involved mostly men 45 and older taking their own lives. Another third of deaths were linked to homicides, while the remaining sliver involved accidental shootings.
Most often, however, the bullet fails to kill: In 2015, nearly 85,000 people who were treated in emergency rooms survived. For those gunshot victims, their wounds were likely non-life-threatening — in either the legs or arms, National Institutes of Health data show. A smaller percentage of assaults or accidental shootings involved getting struck in the head or neck, with only about one-third of those victims surviving long enough to reach a hospital.
For a fleeting moment, the thrust of the bullet bonds these survivors before their stories pull apart, diverging in directions where their futures are thrown into turmoil: Some are left paralyzed or must undergo years of reconstructive surgeries or are so shaken up, they can’t walk down a street without glancing over their shoulders.
Six people forever changed by the pull of a trigger spoke with NBC News about the trauma that occupies each of their lives.
Shot by kidnapper
The bullet entered Sara Cusimano’s forehead and exited the backside of her neck. She was on her knees. The force threw her body backwards. In 1994, Cusimano was 13 and living in Louisiana when a man kidnapped her as she waited in a car while her mother paid for gas. He took her to an abandoned lot, raped her and shot her execution-style, leaving her for dead. More than 4,000 children have been injured annually by gun violence in recent years — and more than 1,000 die, according to the CDC. But Cusimano survived. She suffered a stroke that left one side of her body temporarily paralyzed and continues to struggle with intense PTSD after having several surgeries for damage to her skull. Still, that hasn’t stopped her from living her life, becoming a doctoral student and raising three children.
Shot by suspect
The bullet entered Sgt. Jon Brough’s face in the right temple and exited the left side of his head. In 2006, Brough was part of a police tactical team in Belleville, Illinois, responding to a double-murder suspect barricaded in a house. Brough led the way, and as a battering ram pounded on the door, a gunshot blast from inside the home ripped through his face shield. While police deaths in the line of duty have been on a downward trend, the number of those killed by firearms is up, federal statistics show. Brough, however, did not die, but his life came with trade-offs: The bullet blinded him, and he was forced to endure more than 30 surgeries, including a tracheotomy and reconstruction to his face. Brough’s family stood by his side as he fought feelings of anxiety and remorse, and slowly learned to regain his confidence.
Shot by accident
The bullet entered Benedict Jones’ neck, cutting into an artery and embedding fragments of bone into his spinal cord. In 1991, Jones was 11 and invited a friend over to his Bloomington, Indiana, home while his parents were away. Jones’ father kept a collection of firearms, including a loaded .38-caliber handgun. The boys became curious. Clutching the weapon, Jones’ friend was four or five feet away when he accidentally fired point-blank at Jones’ throat. Jones became one of more than 1,000 children unintentionally injured by guns each year, according to the CDC. The shooting left him paralyzed: He has no feeling from the chest down, but retains some movement in his arms. Twenty-six years later, Jones struggles with daily spasms and endures the emotional weight of what it means to be “normal.”
Shot by husband
The bullet entered Lisette Johnson’s chest, tore through her lung and diaphragm, and exited her right side. A second bullet burrowed in her back, and a third dug into her liver. In 2009, Johnson’s husband attacked her in their Virginia home after she asked to separate and divorce following years of emotional and psychological abuse, she says. Amid the rampage, their children fled the house and he turned the gun on himself. Firearms often play a major part in domestic violence cases, and more than half of women who are murdered with a gun in the U.S. are killed in a domestic situation, studies show. Johnson has wrestled with the pain, exhaustion and nightmares inflicted on her life, but has come to terms with the emotional trauma by working with other domestic violence survivors.
Shot in Iraq
The bullet entered Army sniper Dan Piña in his right buttocks and exited through the left one. Another bullet hit him in his right forearm, while a third struck the chest plate he was wearing, likely saving his life. In 2004, Piña was on his second deployment in Iraq when a six-hour firefight broke out. He would become one of more than 3,000 soldiers initially hurt by a firearm, typically a rifle or machine gun, during the Iraq War. As a military marksman and post 9/11 veteran, Piña has lived on both sides of the bullet. But shooting to kill has left the 35-year-old Los Angeles man with deep psychological wounds, deeper than the experience of being shot. Past the physical pain, he grapples with PTSD and relies heavily on his faith to see him through.
Shot by mugger
The bullet entered Jeffrey Shine in the knee. In 2015, the retired Chicago postal worker and avid dancer was carrying groceries into his apartment when two men sidled up to him. It was a robbery. As he went into his pocket for cash, a gun went off and Shine felt himself sliding onto the concrete. The men snatched two gold chains from around his neck and fled. Gun violence like the one Shine experienced continues to plague Chicago, which saw shootings and homicides reach a high in 2016 not seen since the mid-1990s. Shine still becomes tense when he sees a pair of men approaching him on the street. But after months of therapy for his physical pain, he can once again twirl his wife on the dance floor. “This isn’t the end of the world for me,” he says. “It’s a new beginning.”
The moment they were shot, as frightening and painful as it might have been, marked a new beginning. Their lives were forced onto another path and each of them had to adjust to a body that no longer felt like theirs. For many of the survivors, the new beginning came in the form of a purpose: Johnson has turned her trauma into a source of comfort for other women affected by domestic violence. Jones supports gun control and founded a startup to help people with limited mobility like himself book travel plans. Brough organizes blood drives — recognizing the crucial need after he had lost so much blood when he was shot.
All six survivors came to their own realizations of what it means to be “surviving.” For Cusimano, it’s not as simple as waking up or walking out the door. She clings to the idea that it’s about “making something” out of her life — and it’s a life that she has learned to be proud of: “I get my sense of power from myself.”