11-year-old learning to walk again after Indiana shooting
By MAUREEN C. GILMER
of The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Ty-Juan Preer watches as his 11-year-old son grips the walker and slowly drags his right foot forward, then his left. The boy’s face is locked in concentration. Every step is a victory, a miracle really, but the road ahead is long.
It was three years ago when the boy, also named Ty-Juan, was struck down by a bullet from a passing vehicle. It slammed into his arm, then ricocheted through his small body and came out the other side. It was a seemingly random shooting on a Tuesday afternoon that left then-8-year-old Ty-Juan paralyzed and his family shattered. Another victim of violence on Indianapolis streets.
Doctors said the third-grader would probably never walk again. The bullet had damaged nerves going to his legs and his core.
“It was bleak at the beginning,” said physical therapist Sarah Johnson, who has worked with “Ty” for 1 ½ years during twice-weekly therapy appointments at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “It wasn’t very fun then; we were working on sitting as our big goal.”
But Ty is a motivated kid. And he is surrounded by people who love him and challenge him.
“I don’t believe in ‘can’t,’ ” said Ty’s father. “When the doctors said he can’t, I don’t believe it. God’s got the last say at the end.”
The elder Preer sets the tone for the family, which includes his wife, Shenetta, four children and another on the way.
“Somebody hurt my baby and I want to go out and hurt a lot of people,” said the anguished dad, still struggling to understand the 2015 shooting outside the westside appliance store where he worked.
But Ty insisted his dad make him a promise. “In the hospital, he said, ‘Daddy, I know you want to hurt some people, but you gotta promise you ain’t gonna do nothing. You’re gonna be here with me.’
“I’m holding on to my promise to my son,” Preer said, as Ty caught a ball from Johnson nearby. “I got to be strong. I’m the backbone for them. If they see my back weak at any time … they can’t see that.”
So Preer, who works as a forklift driver, keeps his pain hidden while trash-talking with his son over a game of basketball at a physical therapy session.
“I wouldn’t wish this on nobody,” he said later. In the same breath, he said Ty has remained upbeat throughout the three-year ordeal. “He’s never complained, never gave up hope, been focused the whole time.”
There’s a reason for that, Ty said. “My goal is to be able to play football again.”
Now a sixth-grader at IPS 49, Ty was a running back in his youth league before the shooting. Cam Newton is his favorite NFL player, the Carolina Panthers his top team. The Indianapolis Colts’ T.Y. Hilton is his favorite hometown hero.
But it was the Marian University football team that recently paid him a visit at Riley, presenting him with a football and making him an honorary member of the team.
Johnson said moments like that help keep Ty motivated. So does his family.
“It’s hard to get 11-year-olds to pick up after themselves, and we’re asking Ty to climb a mountain every day and he just does it,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t always like it, but he always does it.”
Ty is comfortable with Johnson, even when she asks a lot of him.
“I like Sarah because she’s fun, she pushes me,” he said.
Like the first time he stood without the heavy braces on his legs. “I didn’t think I could.” But Johnson knew he could. “It felt good,” Ty said.
Neither knows how far he’ll go in rehab, though Ty is determined to get back on the football field.
“I didn’t think we would be where we are now a year and a half ago,” Johnson said. “We’ve gotten better every day. We haven’t put a limit on it yet.”
As he watches his oldest son struggle to walk the length of a hallway with Johnson by his side, Preer can’t help but wonder why this happened.
“I ask myself that all the time. I ask God, of all the things you could have done in my life to test me, why would you use this?”
He wasn’t a saint growing up, the older man said. But he has worked hard to build a better life for his kids and to show them the value of hard work. That’s what Ty and his cousin were doing at that appliance store on a Tuesday afternoon three years ago. They were sweeping up and doing odd jobs at the store to make money to buy candy, he said, shaking his head.
So now, Preer works harder still to provide for his family, to keep them safe. He hopes to move them to a handicapped-accessible home, a place where the doorways are wide enough for Ty to maneuver his wheelchair from room to room. Until then, Preer will continue to carry his son from his bed to the bathroom so Ty can shower and get ready for school.
“I can’t break,” he said. “I got to be strong for them.”
The shooting remains unsolved.