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Rebuilding a shattered dream

After a bullet paralyzes a pregnant mother, her family is learning to live again.

December 02, 2007|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Rose Smith had forgotten the ground turkey for her dirty rice recipe. So the 23-year-old pregnant mother of two waited until their father, Tyrin Tisdale, got home to watch the kids, then headed to the store.

It was May 27 in Watts, and in another hour or so, Smith's life would be shattered. But at that moment, everything was routine -- the way she and Tisdale, 24, liked it.

Raised on the same tough street, the young couple had a shared dream of pulling their young family up and out of the Nickerson Gardens public housing project and of buying a house in a better neighborhood.

That goal required an austere, ceaseless dedication for two people in their early 20s with few resources, no college education and a world of poverty and unemployment at their doorstep.

The rhythm of their lives was like a metronome: Get 2-year-old Mariah and 1-year-old Tyrin Jr. out of bed. Feed them. Dress them. Take them to day care. Go to work, she as a receptionist and he as a mental health worker.

The dirty rice was for one of their few breaks, a Memorial Day potluck with Tisdale's family. Smith hurried through the shopping, then called Tisdale on her cellphone for help unloading the groceries.

Later, both of them would describe what happened as dream-like -- fast and slow at the same time. The children were sleeping in the living room. Smith parked across the street.

A large group of teenagers gathered nearby -- 14-year-olds, black and Latino. Tisdale and Smith both describe a jump in tension, the sound of male voices arguing. Then, like a match dropped in gasoline, a fistfight in the dark. Gunshots booming, close enough to rattle the eardrums.

They remembered the next few seconds differently. Smith's eyes were on the door. The children were awake, standing behind the mesh door, looking out at her. She had one thought -- to get to them.

Tisdale thought the children were still asleep. His eyes were on Smith. He watched her jog across the street. She jumped on the porch and reached for the door handle.

The bullets tore into her one by one, each producing a sharp, burning sensation. Her cheek. Her jaw. Her arm. And there was something else, unlike anything she had felt before. One second her legs were there, the next they weren't.

Even in all the confusion, she knew. "Something in my head had registered that I wasn't going to use my legs any more," she said.

From across the street, Tisdale saw her fall. He thought she was just getting down for safety. "Get up!" he told her as he reached her side. She couldn't.

Tisdale jumped over her, through the door, and called 911. The dispatcher questioned him, saying, "Slow down!" He grew impatient. "My girlfriend's been shot!" he kept saying.

When the police arrived, they wouldn't let Tisdale near Smith.

"Just stand back," they told him.

Lying on the porch, unable to move, Smith felt her heart starting to race. She closed her eyes, willed herself not to panic. She had heard of bullets traveling inside the body, so she concentrated on holding still.

In her ear came the voice of a police officer, bent down close to her. "You look fine. I've seen worse," he was telling her.

At Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital's trauma center, the doctor talked to her. Partly because of reverberation from the bullet's impact, her nerves were so damaged they were no longer sending signals. One technical term would stick with her: The injury was "complete." She would almost certainly never walk again. But the baby was fine.

Smith watched Tisdale's head drop as the doctor spoke. They both cried, Tisdale careful not to become too emotional, for fear the hospital security guards would eject him.

All the way to the hospital, Smith had been thinking, "Is the baby OK? Is the baby OK?" But by this point, she had stopped caring about the pregnancy -- about anything but the pain. "It's sad to say, but it's true. I told them, 'I don't care about the baby right now, tell them to give me medicine!' "

Some medications are too dangerous to use on a pregnant woman. The doctors declined even to X-ray her spine for fear of harming the fetus.

--

In the coming weeks, Tisdale was back and forth between home and hospital, caring alone for the children, arranging child care, cleaning, cooking.

Doctors at Long Beach Memorial Hospital later operated on Smith's jaw, then wired it shut for four weeks. She was pregnant and very hungry. Tisdale brought her protein-infused Jamba Juice and mashed potatoes and gravy from Kentucky Fried Chicken. He also brought the children. Seeing her cry, Mariah would try to comfort her.

One of the bullets had damaged the nerves around her rib cage, causing constant shooting pain. Smith was still taking limited painkillers.

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