published Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Paralyzed Chattanooga shooting victim Shaphan Word just 'happy to be here'

Shaphan Word, left, talks about the night he was shot and paralyzed in early August as he is looked after by his sister Kinnettia, right, during Shaphan's 30th birthday party Saturday.
Shaphan Word, left, talks about the night he was shot and paralyzed in early August as he is looked after by his sister Kinnettia, right, during Shaphan's 30th birthday party Saturday.
Photo by Allison Love.

CHATTANOOGA CRIME 2012

• 66 shootings

• 17 shooting homicides

• 4 nonshooting homicides

Source: Times Free Press archives

When Shaphan Word was in the second grade, he got up to go to the bathroom during a school assembly and a girl took his seat in the auditorium.

He came back and asked the girl, "Can I have my seat back?"

She refused -- until his third-grade sister, Kinnettia "Nikia" Word, intervened.

"I just jumped right up," she said Saturday with a laugh. "That was my first fight."

"That's always how it went," Shaphan said. "Someone would try to mess with me and" -- he hums a few notes of the Superman theme song --"she was right there."

As they got older, Shaphan helped Nikia out, too, slipping her extra money from his job as a gas station cashier as often as he could to help with her four children. They were always there for each other.

Then, a little after 1 a.m. on Aug. 15, someone knocked on Nikia's door. Shaphan had been shot, and it was bad.

She sprinted to Windsor Street and found her little brother unconscious and covered in blood. He was walking home after his 3 p.m.-midnight shift ended and had been shot from behind.

"It changed our lives completely," she said.

The bullet went through his right shoulder blade and out his neck -- Shaphan lost seven liters of blood and underwent multiple surgeries. He was in and out of consciousness for the next 10 days, and nurses told Nikia he might not pull through.

Her normally thin, 6-foot-tall brother's body was so swollen that he couldn't close his hands into a fist. A long, ragged scar marked the spot on his chest where doctors pulled apart his sternum during surgery.

Still, he lived -- paralyzed below the shoulder.

He spent two months in the hospital and moved in with Nikia on Monday -- just in time to celebrate his 30th birthday Thursday. She didn't want him to go to a nursing home, but even after a week she's already struggling to keep up with his intensive care.

She helps him get dressed, brings him food, changes his diapers, gives him his medication -- he takes seven pills three times a day -- and feeds his dog.

"I'm very limited in what I can do," he said, his voice low and raspy because his left vocal cord is paralyzed. "It's like having another 3-year-old in the house."

"It's OK; it's OK; it's OK," Nikia interrupted. "We're a family, and family has to stick together at any cost."

Shaphan sleeps in a donated hospital bed that's not quite big enough for him -- his feet poke out over the end -- and every two hours, he needs to be turned to avoid developing sores.

"It doesn't matter, at 2 in the morning if I need to be turned, she's going to get up and do it," he said. "At 4 or 5 in the morning, she'll get up and change my diaper."

Sometimes, he feels like a burden.

"We've always been close, and we've always been there for each other," he said. "But now, I can't reciprocate. She can be there for me, but I can't be there for her. I pray that she can get some assistance because I know she can't do it alone, even though she won't tell me that."

FACING CHALLENGES

The family is struggling to pay for diapers, catheters, bandages, sheets, laundry. Shaphan can't leave the house without several people to carry him down the front steps. Getting to doctor appointments is a struggle because the family has no car. Nikia is out of work, and paying the water and electricity bills each month is tough.

But no one is giving up. Shaphan still cracks jokes and passionately cheers for the University of Florida Gators. Nikia used her food stamps to throw him a birthday party Saturday, complete with hot dogs and chocolate cake.

He said he thinks he knows who shot him -- a man in a gang who had robbed him a few days earlier. He didn't report the robbery to police, he said, and wanted to let it go.

"If I tell the police, in this neighborhood, I guarantee him and his gang will catch up with me before the police catch up with him," he said. "That's just how it goes."

Shaphan said he isn't a gang member, and Chattanooga police said they don't believe the shooting was gang-related. He has had a handful of run-ins with police and was arrested in 2011 on a charge of possession of a controlled substance.

"It was hard for me to find a job, so I smoked weed, I admit it -- but that was it," he said. "I've never been a violent offender, and jail wasn't my thing. I found staying out of trouble is much better for me than anything else."

He'd been working at the gas station for 10 months when he was shot. He'd like to go back, but in his wheelchair he can't reach the cash register. He hopes he'll regain control of his lower body, but no matter what happens, he said he's just glad to be alive.

"The grace of God has gotten us this far, and I know he'll keep carrying us though this," Shaphan said. "If he carries me back on these two legs, so be it. And if he decides I need to be in this position, I'm going to make the most out of it. Either way, I'm happy to be here. And with a family like this, I can't help but be proud to be here."

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury joined the Times Free Press as a business reporter in January 2013, after starting with the paper as a general assignment intern in July 2012. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint Hill Times. Outside the newsroom, Shelly enjoys ...

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