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A Random Act of Violence, and an Excruciating Survival: “The bullet may not have taken my life then, but it may still.”

By Sara Cusimano

On a hot day in August 1994, when I was 13, I was waiting in the car for my mom to return from the counter at the local gas station, just outside of New Orleans. I usually wasn’t allowed to stay in the car by myself. Even though we lived in suburbia, my mom always followed reasonable safety precautions. However, today was a special day – it was my first day of high school – and my mom finally gave in to my teenaged pleading. When she left, I cranked the radio up, slipped my saddle oxfords off and relaxed against the seat. I was relishing in the rare moment of new-teenager freedom, but the moment didn’t last long.

Almost immediately, I heard the car door open and for a split second I thought my mom had returned. Maybe she had forgotten something. But then I heard a male voice and I looked over. I found myself face to face with the barrel of a gun. A white 29-year-old male had jumped into the driver’s seat. He held a gun to my face and threatened me if I screamed. It took a few moments for me to understand what was happening. At first I didn’t grasp the fact that I was in serious danger. But as he started to pull away from the gas station, panic set in.

I lost sense of time in those moments and I’m not sure how long we were in the car. It couldn’t have been long, because before he crossed the city line, a tire on the car blew. He – by this point he had told me his name – pulled into a parking lot at the end of a dead end street behind the city airport fields. He tried in vain to change the tire. I remember watching the sweat drip from his nose as he bent over the tire. I remember watching as he became more frustrated. I remember hearing the car groan as it shifted on the jack. For the umpteenth time, I wondered if I could escape. And for the umpteenth time, I came to the same conclusion – that no matter where I ran, I couldn’t outrun a bullet.

The world was continuing around me, but I was left trying to relearn everything.

The uncooperative tire finally frustrated him enough that he gave up trying to change it. Instead, he grabbed a piece of cardboard and led me into the abandoned lot next door where he raped me as he held the gun to my head. After, he told me to get dressed, get on my knees and count to ten. I remember there being a feeling of relief because I believed he was simply going to run away. I even began to think about how long I would wait before I opened my eyes.

So I got on my knees as he stood over me, I closed my eyes and I counted. One…..Two…..Three.

I believed he would run. Instead, he pulled the trigger. I remember what it felt like. I remember my body flying backward and slamming into the ground. It felt like I had been punched. The bullet had entered my forehead right between my eyes and it exited the right rear of my neck. Strangely, there wasn’t pain. There was only an awareness that something had happened. It was like when there is a word that you want to recall but can’t. It just sits on the tip of your tongue, just enough out of your grasp that you can’t quite get it. That’s what the awareness was like. I knew there was something that I should be understanding. I knew there was something that I should be remembering. I knew it was there. I just couldn’t get it.

That day in August 1994, my life was changed forever. And I didn’t have a choice.

A lot happened in the immediate hours and days after he pulled the trigger. I was found within a few hours by a rookie police officer. I was rushed to the local hospital and then to the nearest Children’s Hospital. At first, my family didn’t even know that I had been shot. In those first few hours it was simply a matter of life or death. But eventually, they were told that I had been shot at point blank range. The bullet had fractured the bones in my neck and I had suffered a stroke from the blood loss ,which left the left side of my body partially, temporarily, paralyzed. Even with the advanced medical capabilities of a major urban area, survival was not a guarantee.

The following months were surreal. The city rallied around me and there was an outpouring of support and love from friends and strangers alike. My hospital room was stuffed with flowers, cards, and balloons. But while my friends and neighbors were holding fundraisers, my family and I were dealing with police and media interviews. The world was continuing around me, but I was left trying to relearn everything. Not only had I endured a significant head injury, but the stroke had left me with an entire other set of issues. I had to learn how to walk again, perform daily tasks and even eat. I spent hours in physical therapy and occupational therapy. I hated it. My life was agony and none of it was my fault. During the day I went from one therapy to the next with very few moments to myself. In between the excruciating therapies, I went to therapies that were meant to help me deal with the emotional effects of things. And on top of that, I still went to school in the hospital classroom. Then at the end of the day, the nurses would come in, take my neck brace off, and carefully roll me to the side so they could clean the exit wound on the back of my neck. Then I would attempt to sleep with my limp left arm in a brace and I would start all over the next day.

That day in August 1994, my life was changed forever. And I didn’t have a choice. While my attacker sits in prison, my life continues to be adversely affected by his ability to get a gun just 18 days after being released from prison and his decision to use it for his own selfish purposes. I’ve lost count of the number of minor surgeries that I have needed in the last 10 years. In the last five years, I have had two major surgeries related to the damage from the bullet with more planned for the future. With each surgery, I face increased risks, increased side effects and increased loss of quality of life. The bullet may not have taken my life then, but it may still. In addition, I’ve suffered through flashbacks and nightmares, anxiety and fears. I don’t have the privilege of living an ordinary life. That God-given right – the right to live a life free from fear, free from evils – was taken from me.

Among all the conversations, rhetoric, and business lobbying, the most important point is lost – that human lives are destroyed due to the actions or inactions of others.

I think very few people understand the true impact of gun violence. How it destroys a human life, how it rips apart families, how it devastates communities. Among all the conversations, rhetoric, and business lobbying, the most important point is lost – that human lives are destroyed due to the actions or inactions of others.

If there is one thing that I have learned from my experience it is how fragile human life is. So many people take for granted the fact that they can wake up in the morning and go about their day without any fear or concern. We seem to spend more of our time filled with anger and hatred rather than love and awe. We are bombarded with 24 hours of news of war, famine, and spite, and when a news story of love and kindness occurs, it is treated as if it is a rare beauty that only blooms once a decade. But love and kindness is what we were born as. The hatred and anger is a choice.

My attacker will spend the rest of his life in prison. He was convicted as a three-time felon and he was given a mandatory life sentence plus an additional few decades. As the presiding judge said, the only way he will be leaving prison is in a body bag. I will also live the rest of my life confined to the sentence that he gave me as a victim of gun violence. A lot has changed in the nearly two decades since my attack. Back then, my community was outraged. They were outraged that a man who had been released from prison less than a month before was able to access a gun and wait in the shadows for his victim. But, I can’t help but think that the reaction would be different today. Sure, many would be outraged and angry, but my attacker would probably have an equal number of supporters. Those that argue more for his right to own a gun than for my right to live a healthy life.

And that scares me.

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