The fight that started Keith Davis on a path to a new life began when he was buying marijuana. It was early afternoon on Aug. 8. As he tells it, he was in at his usual hangout in North Central Philadelphia, in front of an abandoned church at 18th and Ridge. He was taking too long mulling over his purchase, and another man got impatient and told him to go buy his stuff somewhere else.
“I go wherever I want to go,” said Davis. The man said some things back. A fight broke out, which ended when the man pulled out a knife and stabbed Davis in the abdomen and left arm.
Davis, who was 21, was still punching at the man even as he watched the knife go in. He saw the blood, but he felt no pain. He thought about calling an ambulance. “But I don’t want to pay $2,000 for an ambulance,” he said. And an ambulance would probably mean police — nobody wanted that. “I ain’t no snitch,” Davis said in December, recalling his thinking. Hahnemann University Hospital’s emergency department, a place well known to Davis and his friends, was a little over a mile away. He started to walk.
This was Davis’ corner. He grew up a few blocks away in the Francisville neighborhood, and these were his people. But no one volunteered to come with him. “I didn’t ask nobody, and they know what kind of person I am,” he said — one who can take care of himself. As Davis walked, holding his stomach wound, the bloodstain bloomed across his shirt and began to drip onto the sidewalk. Strangers offered help, but Davis shrugged them off and kept walking. He got to the emergency room. He remembers one gentle doctor calming him down. “Let’s call your mom,” the doctor said, “and then we’re going to put you to sleep.” Nurses took off his sneakers, cut off his clothes and stuck a needle in his arm. He woke up a day later with 72 stiches in his left arm and more than 30 staples in his stomach.
It was the type of crime that kills more young men in America than any other: The ingredients are an argument over nothing, an audience (ensuring that neither man can back down) and a weapon. The weapon was a knife, so Davis woke up. It’s usually a gun, and often they don’t wake up.
That knife, though, did not just wound his stomach and arm. It also altered his brain. When he woke up in the hospital, he was surrounded by his family, but his first thoughts were new worries: Who can I trust? It now seemed too dangerous even to walk to the store. “I can’t let my guard down when I go around the neighborhood.” And then, “I need to retaliate.”
Forty-five years ago, the medical establishment in America grasped the severe psychological injury that soldiers could sustain from exposure to the violence of war. We are just now starting to understand that the same is true of residents of violent urban neighborhoods, and that their trauma is both a public health and a public safety issue. Numerous academic studies have found rates of PTSD among people who live in violent neighborhoods higher than those of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some research concludes that 46 percent of people in these neighborhoods will develop PTSD in their lifetime.
Picture: Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia (dirty alley Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons