No longer a victim: How one survivor dealt with Philadelphia’s gun violence

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Oronde McClain. (Courtesy of Oronde McClain and the McClain Foundation)

Oronde McClain. (Courtesy of Oronde McClain and the McClain Foundation)

Philadelphia experienced a record number of homicides in 2021. Five hundred sixty-two people were murdered, with the majority dying as a result of gun violence. While advocates tend to focus resources on the families of slain victims, thousands more survived shootings last year and are working to cope with the trauma.

Oronde McClain understands the pain of surviving gun violence. He was shot in the head at age 10 in Philadelphia, and it took him 12 years to recover from his injuries. Two decades later, he’s no longer a victim. Instead, he has transformed into a survivor and activist. The married father of five is also an author of the book, “PTSD Won’t Define Me.”

McClain shared his story with WHYY host Cherri Gregg.

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I hear one of your little ones back there.

Yeah, I’m home with them today.

Well, welcome.

Thank you for having me.

When you hear that number, 562, and hear of all the shootings in Philadelphia, what goes through your mind?

It’s tragic. I’ve been through that pain. Getting shot is the worst feeling ever. But those 562 people are not here anymore. I don’t understand that pain. But I know the pain of getting shot.

And we had well over 2,000 shootings last year. I mean, so many people. Tell us a little bit about your experience that took place in 2000, so 22 years ago.

I was 10 years old. I lived in K&A in Kensington. My mom was like, “I don’t like this neighborhood no more because it was drug-infested, a shooting every day.” So we moved to Mount Airy, this was April 1st. On April 3rd, I walked to the Chinese store. The bus wasn’t coming. I hear shots. That’s how I got shot in the back of the head. The cops were right there. They picked me up and took me to the hospital. I died for 2 minutes, 17 seconds. I had an out-of-body experience. For that 2 minutes, 17 seconds, it felt like 10 years for me. I was climbing this ladder. It was a peaceful moment when I was on the other side, I was getting to the light. I’m 10 years old, but I felt like I was an athlete. I felt so good, and somebody pulled my leg. I woke up out of the coma. They were telling me, “Oh, you were in a coma for seven weeks.” But I’m like, “Wait, really?” I didn’t know what was going on.

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A photo of Oronde McClain as a child. (Courtesy of Oronde McClain and the McClain Foundation)

So you wake up. And what was it like realizing the injuries that you had?

Oh, it was terrifying. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t walk. I used to be right-handed, but now I’m left-handed. I had to wear a helmet. I was in a wheelchair for two years.

I’ve read that people were telling you it was nothing but God that you survived and that this was the biggest blessing, but you felt differently. Explain.

I don’t want people to take it the wrong way. I tried to take my life 23 times because, when I was on that ladder I could use my hands, I was able to think, I was smart. In reality, I was in a wheelchair, I had to wear a helmet. A 10-year-old boy is not supposed to be like that. How did I just wake up and be like that? Then I felt like an idiot. Like, “You’re not, you’re not dreaming. This is for real.”

So you, the cool kid, wakes up, and you’re like, “What world am I living in?”

People don’t understand — I questioned God too, because I’m 10, why would you do this to me? But now, I understand, now that I’m older, it was a test. Now, I got a purpose in life. There are millions of victims that feel the same way, but some don’t find that purpose in life. That’s why I’m here to explain to them once you find your purpose. I graduated college. I’m used to my right arm being paralyzed. Now, I’m left-handed, so I’m like, “OK, this is who you are. You can’t change what’s written in stone.”

And so is this when you sort of realized you were going to be OK?

Yes. And I had a lot of support systems: my sisters and my mom. But they didn’t get shot, so I wasn’t trying to hear anything they were saying. Now, I have thousands in my support system because I found a lot of gunshot victims that felt like me.

And so you actually work at the VA with people who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Do you feel like you have a lot in common with these veterans?

At work, I feel at home. I feel safe. I do groups, I feel like this is my coping skill, to help them out, and they actually help me out.

You’re now a dad.

Of five.

Congratulations. How does that make you feel?

Oh, I feel good. Like, I used to be scared. Because I’m married now, I’m like, “How do I explain to my wife?” Because she’s normal, and I’m not normal. But she’s just like, “OK, I understand. I read the articles. It’s OK.”  And the five kids — the doctor told me I wasn’t going to have kids. You can beat the odds. It’s OK. As long as you’ve got the support system, you’ll be fine.

You wrote a book, it’s called “PTSD Won’t Define Me.” Tell me about the book, and why you decided to write it.

Once you’re diagnosed with PTSD, you don’t tell the world, “Oh, it’s over. I don’t have PTSD anymore.” No. It just won’t define me. It’s not going to control my life. Yes, I still have nightmares. I still wake it up and be like, “I can’t sleep.” I still sleep two to three hours of the night. But it won’t define me. I still wake up in the morning and go to work, taking the kids and doing all that normal stuff. So the book is about just some of the coping skills that I used that I think other people in the world could use.

Oronde McClain. (Courtesy of Oronde McClain and the McClain Foundation)

And not just gun violence survivors, but anybody who survives some trauma?

Any trauma victim, whether it’s spiritually, emotionally, anything.

Why do you want to share your story? I mean, because I know it must be painful to sit and talk about what happened to you in 2000. And what do you want folks to know?

I feel like me sharing my story will open up other victims to share their stories. Because I would not come outside because I didn’t want anybody to know what’s going on with me. Now, the whole world knows, and they say, “Hey, Oronde,”  I say “Oh, you want to talk to me? Hey, how you doing?” So I feel like sharing is like the best thing to do.

Thank you so much to Oronde, for sharing your story. And for just surviving.

Thank you, and I appreciate it.

Oronde McClain is founder of the McClain Foundation. His book, “PTSD Won’t Define Me,” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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