published Sunday, July 29th, 2012

A gangster's bullet has left Keoshia Ford and her family in the midst of a long, dark night

LeKeshia Matthews smoothes down daughter Keoshia Ford's eyebrows Friday morning. Ford's family rose bright and early to take her to a doctor's appointment at Erlanger on Friday morning.
LeKeshia Matthews smoothes down daughter Keoshia Ford's eyebrows Friday morning. Ford's family rose bright and early to take her to a doctor's appointment at Erlanger on Friday morning.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

HOW TO HELP

Keoshia Ford is in need of supplies, as well as money donations.

Supplies needed include: large adult diapers, toilet paper, hand soap, paper towels, bath towels, trash bags, hydrogen peroxide, Toothette oral swabs, bottled water, laundry detergent, saline bullets, cotton swabs, sanitary wipes, 4x4 gauze, hand sanitizer, A&D diaper rash ointment, baby shampoo and alcohol swabs.

Donations can be dropped off at Olivet Baptist Church, 740 E. M.L. King Blvd., or Chattanooga Police Department, 3410 Amnicola Highway.

Checks can be sent to Olivet Baptist Church, c/o Keoshia Ford, 740 E. M.L. King Blvd., Chattanooga, TN 37403. The church can be reached at 423-266-8709.

PRAYER

A prayer vigil will be held at noon Saturday at 2012 Bennett Ave., where Keoshia Ford was shot March 17.

Keoshia Ford's eyes are half closed in a downward glance. Family members dust pink eye shadow on her as she sits strapped to a wheelchair outfitted with a head brace and cushions.

Two of Keoshia's four sisters play in the background, coloring inside composition books.

This is the hard part, said 30-year-old LeKeshia Matthews, Keoshia's mother: waiting.

The 13-year-old girl has been comatose since being shot in the head in March, the unintended target in a gang shooting. She visited Erlanger hospital Friday in hopes of getting a breathing tube removed from her throat.

"She swallows a lot," Matthews said. "She breathes on her own."

The family waited an hour for public transportation to pick her up from her home in the Cromwell Hills Apartments public housing complex. The bus picks her up at the time she should be registering inside the hospital. Matthews doesn't have a vehicle with an automatic lift to take Keoshia to and from doctor's visits.

There's more waiting for the family — they wait for the day Keoshia will smile and talk again.

There's no guarantee that day will come.

"It's not likely," said Dr. Michael Carr, director of the pediatric trauma center at Children's Hospital, who treated Keoshia and examined her Friday. However, "I also told her prayers work miracles."

Keoshia has become a symbol of the cost of gang violence in Chattanooga — in human suffering and in dollars. Since she could live for years and requires around-the-clock attention, her care could run into the millions of dollars if she does not heal.

Keoshia's visit to Erlanger is one of many ahead of her.

After the appointment, the family sat in a row of chairs, waiting again for the bus.

"When I asked him how long she would have to have a trach [tracheotomy tube, through which she breathes], he said, 'The rest of her life,'" Matthews said.

Carr said that a tracheostomy — a surgical procedure to make the opening permanent — likely will have to be performed.

Matthews has had to learn to change the tube herself. The first time she did it, she passed out, she said.

Despite Friday's news, Matthews remains optimistic.

"Hopefully, one day she can have it removed," the mother said.

Another Black Child is Shot

Four months after her shooting, Keoshia's family depends on TennCare to pay for treating her traumatic brain injury and full-time care.

"Children on TennCare are not subject to any deductibles, premiums or copays. Also, there is no 'cost cap' for medical services," said Kelly Gunderson, director of communications for TennCare. "As long as the individual qualifies for the program, he or she will receive all medically necessary care that is included as a covered benefit."

Keoshia requires a nurse 24 hours a day who follows a schedule of rotating her in bed, checking her diaper and clearing her airway of fluids.

The average cost of that kind of labor-intensive care for patients is an estimated $320,000 per year, Gunderson said.

Even though TennCare foots the bills for hospitalization, nurses and some supplies, it doesn't cover everything. TennCare pays for 200 diapers a month, but Keoshia typically needs 160 more. Someone who is immobile can have complications such as blood clots, pneumonia and infection, doctors say. Keoshia already had one pressure sore when she was hospitalized earlier this year, Carr said.

Still, patients in Keoshia's condition can survive for years, well into their 40s to 50s, with proper care.

"If the patient gets meticulous care, they can live a long time like this. It's definitely a long-time commitment," said Dr. Erin Reade, a pediatric critical-care physician at Children's Hospital.

With injuries like Keoshia's, there's hope of progress within the first 12 to 24 months, doctors said, but after that, the chances of significant recovery decline.

Keoshia already has made much progress. She breathes without a machine. The trach tube remains to allow nurses to suction secretions from her lungs, said Mary Kennett, one of Keoshia's nurses. Without it, she may not be able to cough and would be at higher risk for pneumonia, she said.

Keoshia has not recovered enough to speak or to perform simple tasks such as walking, feeding herself or bathing.

"She can't change position on her own," Carr said.

However, Matthews said Keoshia can react when she hears her voice.

"The majority of families think they receive some emotional response from the child. To doctors and nurses, it's not something clear to us," Carr said.

"I've had patients in as late as 18 months use hand language or sign language only they would understand to communicate with their families," he added. "There's this bond or intuitive communication between patient and caretaker."

Being home helps Keoshia's chances for a successful recovery, he said.

"It's just environmental stimuli from hearing words and feeling touch," Carr said.

Matthews remembers her daughter's strong-willed spirit before the shooting. She believes Keoshia will come out of this.

Keoshia played just about any team sport offered and she never gave up, her mother said.

"If she didn't make it [the team], she would try again," Matthews said. "She was a fighter. She wasn't no quitter."

A community comes together

After the city's anti-gang initiative and local churches announced fundraisers to support Keoshia, supplies began to flood into Olivet Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

"It's really been overwhelming," said pastor Kevin Adams, who noted that people of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds are giving what they can.

As many as 20 local churches are working together.

"I've never seen people who have felt such a situation," he said. "She's just a sweet girl. People see the crime scene of a shooting and the arrests. They see that side of it, but they don't see the impact of a victim's life."

Last week, the church sent over a van loaded with supplies. The hall closet in Keoshia's apartment is stocked with toilet paper and paper towels. In one bedroom, three shower chairs are stored. Bottled water is kept under Keoshia's bed. The bathroom closet is brimming with bottles of hand sanitizer and hydrogen peroxide.

"We wanted them to feel the outpouring," Adams said. "This is how the community feels about Keoshia."

Matthews said she continues to be amazed at the support from the community. Some people who recognize her from the media coverage have approached her to say, "'I just broke down. That [Keoshia's story] touched me,'" Matthews said.

Carr has worked at the hospital for 26 years treating children 15 and under, most commonly traumatic head injuries from car wrecks and self-inflicted gunshot wounds. It's less often that he sees victims of crimes.

"This is an innocent victim. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "The tragedy is in our neighborhoods; these things are happening."

The police officers union, Local Fraternal Order of the Police Lodge, also announced it would take collections in coordination with Olivet Baptist's efforts.

"Chattanooga has always been generous. They are holding that tradition now. It's extremely heartwarming to see this," said Sgt. Craig Joel, first vice president for the lodge. "What happened to this girl, honestly should be a flash point of our worst fears."

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