One year later: A Philadelphia student and shooting survivor spreads hope for others impacted by gun violence

Mom Natali Rosario (left), 17 year-old Ivan (center) and pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Tina Loven (right) spoke to the media about Ivan’s recovery a year after he was shot in the head near his high school, October 18, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mom Natali Rosario (left), 17 year-old Ivan (center) and pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Tina Loven (right) spoke to the media about Ivan’s recovery a year after he was shot in the head near his high school, October 18, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Ivan Cuevas came into the emergency room at St. Christopher’s Hospital For Children in critical condition.

He had a gunshot wound to his head. He was 16 years old and had been struck by a bullet in a drive-by shooting just outside Abraham Lincoln High School in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia.

School had just let out for the day.

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Dr. Tina Loven, chair of neurosurgery at the hospital, said Cuevas was not deemed as “survivable.”

“We kept going back and looking at his imaging [scans], and pretty much everybody was shaking their heads saying, there’s no way,” Loven said.

St. Christopher’s pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Tina Loven, embrace Ivan a year after he was shot outside Lincoln High School, on October 18, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But there was a way. Doctors said Cuevas eventually showed a single brainstem reflex response, which meant there was some brain activity.

They proceeded with surgery to remove a bullet lodged millimeters away from his brain stem, not knowing what kind of abilities or quality of life Cuevas would have should he recover from the trauma.

That was exactly one year ago this week.

On Tuesday, Cuevas, now 17, walked into the hospital carrying a box of gifts. He and his family returned to thank hospital staff for their care, and send a message of hope to Philadelphia communities that have experienced gun violence.

Nurses at St. Christopher’s Pediatric Hospital clap for 17 year-old Ivan as he walks in to visit them a year to-the-day since he was shot in the head outside his high school, on October 18, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Ivan just shows us that there is hope in the epidemic that’s happening out there,” said Cuevas’ mother, Natali Rosario. “Most mothers don’t get this privilege like we do. You know, everyone is being an advocate for what’s happening, but they don’t get their child there with them.”

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Ivan’s mom Natali Rosario wipes away tears as Ivan reflects on the past year miraculously recovering from a gunshot wound to the head at St. Christopher’s Pediatric Hospital on October 18, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Rosario referred to the hundreds of people in Philadelphia who have died from shootings in recent years. City data shows there’s been 401 gun violence deaths so far this year, including 34 victims under the age of 18.

“The message is, just stop,” Rosario said to those doing the shooting. “I don’t know why everyone is so angry and I just wish everyone wasn’t so angry. We could be super angry — we could be the most miserable, horrible people dealing with this, but we’re not.”

Months of rehabilitation helped Cuevas relearn how to walk, talk, and eat again. He has slight paralysis on the right side of his face, and hearing loss in his right ear, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing basketball with his friends, running (much to the worry of his mother), and returning to complete his senior year of high school at Lincoln.

“I could have been paralyzed from the neck down,” Cuevas said. “So, just to not have that happen and to be talking to you right now, this is a blessing.”

17 year-old Ivan explains to the press where a bullet entered his head in October 2021, as he visited doctors and nurses at St. Christopher’s Pediatric Hospital on October 18, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The gun violence epidemic in Philadelphia continues. Cuevas was one of 47 gunshot patients treated at St. Christopher’s Hospital in fiscal year 2022.

Hospital officials say they’ve treated 42 gunshot patients just in the first four months of this fiscal year. Rhiannon Hope, Rosario’s fiancé, hopes that Cuevas’ story will encourage survivors, and make others hesitate when thinking about using a gun to harm someone else.

“You’re seeing all the deaths on the news, and they’re still doing it [shooting],” Hope said. “I’m hoping that maybe more of a positive outlook on it will make kids realize that there is life to live.”

17 year-old Ivan poses with the nurses that cared for him during his month long stay at St. Christopher’s Pediatric Hospital after he was shot in the head outside his high school in October, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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