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Survivors Of Gun Violence: A Life Of Pain And Deep Wounds That Don't Heal08:00
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Clai Lasher-Sommers, in a file photo (Copyright of Joe Quint)
Clai Lasher-Sommers, in a file photo (Copyright of Joe Quint)

Clai Lasher-Sommers still carries the deep emotional and physical scars from a gunshot wound she suffered 50 years ago. She's now 62 and runs a small farm in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, in the southwest corner of the state, where her green fields are surrounded by soft, rolling hills.

"This is the land that I used to play on when I was a kid," Lasher-Sommers says, as she points to rows of beets, shallots and fennel. "It was my only safe spot ... before I got shot."

That happened in 1979 when she was 13.

After a mass shooting, like the one in California Sunday, the focus is usually on the victims who were murdered. But there is less attention paid to the tens of thousands of Americans who are wounded every year by guns. That long list of victims now includes David Ortiz, who was just released from Massachusetts General Hospital seven weeks after he was shot in the Dominican Republic. The former Red Sox star underwent three surgeries after suffering damage to multiple organs from an attack that authorities are still investigating.

The story of Lasher-Sommers is a reminder that survivors of gun violence carry wounds, both physical and emotional, for the rest of their lives.

Clai Lasher-Sommers (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)
Clai Lasher-Sommers (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

In 1970, she was living in Westmoreland with her brother, mother and her stepfather, who was physically abusive, especially when he drank.

"He would hold the house hostage," Lasher-Sommers said. "[He would] beat my mother, beat my brother and then beat me. [He would] take the gun and put it against my neck and hold me up against the wall."

Lasher-Sommers says her stepfather, Crosley Fletcher, threatened her with his .30-06, a powerful hunting rifle that can take down a moose. Sometimes he would point the gun at her when it was unloaded and pull the trigger. But one night, when he was drunk and in a rage, he loaded the gun.

"My mother came out of her bedroom and said 'You better watch out because I think he's going to really shoot you tonight,' and then she went and hid in my bedroom closet," said Lasher-Sommers, who recalled that when she tried to close her bedroom door, her stepfather shot her. "I remember my body going way up in the air and bouncing from the shock. It's like slow motion; you bounce up [and] your body turns around."

Her brother ran to the neighbors. The police came, and then an ambulance rushed 13-year-old Lasher-Sommers to the hospital. Through it all, she never lost consciousness.

"I think there's something that happens to you when you're shot," she said. "You instinctively know — I kept telling myself that if I lost consciousness I would die. So I didn't."

The bullet hit Lasher-Sommers in her side, tore through a kidney, just missed her spine and exited through her back. She was partially paralyzed for six months, and underwent multiple surgeries. She says 50 years later, the wound is still there.

"I have one kidney that's full of shrapnel and barely works," she said. "Even today, lead comes out of my body — so that's like a constant reminder. It still comes out."

Lasher-Sommers says the lead and her scars show how much trauma one bullet can inflict on a body.

"For every gun death, there's roughly two to three times more [gun-related] injuries," said John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence.

It's difficult to nail down precisely how many Americans are shot and survive each year. But here's what we know from a number of studies, including the Gun Violence Archive: Last year, close to 40,000 Americans were killed by guns, most by suicides. Excluding suicides, there were about 15,000 gun deaths, and about twice as many gun injuries — many of them severe.

"An AR-15 assault rifle and a .223 round is designed to tumble and create maximum soft tissue damage," Rosenthal said. "The entry wound from an AR-15 is about a half-inch in diameter. The exit wound is like 8 to 10 inches in diameter. So bullets leave holes in people's bodies, in their lives and in their communities."

Boston University's School of Public Health took part in a multi-decade study of firearm injuries. It found that the severity of gun wounds has increased significantly in recent years, which correlates with the growing lethality of modern weapons.

"For those who live, the bullet has still gone through the body and caused injury to the intestine, to the liver or the spleen or to any number of blood vessels, and that is an extraordinary amount of damage to the human body," said Sandro Galea, dean at the BU School of Public Health, who co-authored the study.

According to Galea, the data show that 30% of shooting victims die; about 30% are treated in an ER and released; and roughly 40% require complicated treatments and prolonged hospitalization.

All this comes with a huge cost to the victims and to society, according to Galea, who says the full cost of firearm injury "is really undocumented." But he says some estimates put the price-tag at billions of dollars a year — roughly on par with the cost of obesity in America. And much of that cost is born by Medicaid, because most of the victims are low-income.

And there's another factor to consider: "Firearm injury is an extremely traumatic event," said Galea. "We know that people who suffer traumatic events have a high likelihood of having mental illness after that event, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)."

But Galea says more study is needed to accurately assess the psychological toll of firearm injuries.

"You do not ever get rid of PTSD," said Lasher-Sommers, who has lived with it for the past 50 years.

In many ways she has moved on with her life. She had children, runs a farm and advocates for victims of gun violence. Her stepfather, Crossley Fletcher, served time in jail for the 1970 shooting, and died in 2009. But Lasher-Sommers still struggles with depression, and says the trauma of being shot never goes away — something she learned years ago when her baby daughter contracted Lyme disease.

"It reawakened all of the PTSD," she said, holding back tears. "[It made me wonder], would she die? Could I ever take my eyes off her? [I had] extreme fear of losing her. That's when I realized again you know how bad [the PTSD] could be."

Her daughter recovered, and Lasher-Somers says a therapist eventually helped her with her PTSD.

"He taught me that [after sustaining] that amount of trauma and injury, you have to learn to walk beside your PTSD," she said. "That's the goal. I don't know anyone who has gotten over it. But you learn to walk beside it. That is the best that I can do."

That gunshot wound has caused Lasher-Sommers a half-century of pain. But it's also inspired her to help others like her. She hopes to set up a nonprofit and transform her farm into a refuge where victims of gun violence can come and recover. Given what we know about their numbers, she will have plenty of takers.

This segment aired on July 29, 2019.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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