When a bullet passed through 14-year-old Ondelee Perteet's jaw and severed his spine, doctors told him he would never walk again. But three and a half years later, he is able to walk with crutches. [Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz/Wonderful Machine]

For the last three and a half years, Ondelee Perteet has been fighting his own body. 

He was shot in the jaw in September 2009, the bullet severing his spine. The doctors diagnosed him a quadriplegic and said he’d never again be able to move anything below his neck.

But Perteet has been winning one small battle after another. The movement of a finger on his left hand has led to the use of that full arm. His legs were once motionless; now he can stand on them with only the assistance of a cane. 

Despite his remarkable accomplishments, however, youth violence has stripped Perteet of the everyday but important moments of his teenage years. There aren’t any recent stories of sports heroics or teenage hijinks.

In the summer, he sits in his wheelchair outside of his Bronzeville apartment watching life move around him. “It’s so boring,” he admits in a rare moment of pessimism. But most days, he is positive. 

The 18-year-old’s determination, and the fierce encouragement of his mother, has helped him to re-learn how to play video games, drive and use the bathroom without a catheter or diapers. 

Perteet’s story is remarkable on its own, but it is part of a larger picture in which youth in Chicago are being shot at shocking rates. Perteet has become a living reminder of the senseless damage that gun violence reaps daily in Chicago. He wasn’t in a gang, he was just a kid trying to have a good time at his sister’s party.

Today though, Perteet still has a bright future. He plans to attend Chicago State University and he cracks up with an electric smile when he lists the things he wants to be, like a doctor or a lawyer. But he nearly became a statistic, just like the 243 people under age 25 who were killed in Chicago in 2012. 

The Chicago Reporter has been following Perteet’s story over the past year.

The Reporter recently sat down with him and his mother, Deetreena Perteet, to discuss his recovery and how gun violence has affected them. 

TCR: Do you want to go over really quickly what happened?

Ondelee: On September 5, 2009, I was at a party that my sisters threw. I got into it with somebody who was in the party gangbanging, popping pills and smoking weed, and I was like ‘calm down, keep it real, just have fun.’ One dude started getting out of line with me and my sister broke us up and they put him out of the party…. I went out and broke the fight up. And when I did that I got jumped on by the whole party. Then my uncles stepped in. [Later] I stepped outside and got shot in the face. [The bullet] went through my jaw, hit the top of my spine, severed my spine and broke two bones in my neck. Paralyzed me from the neck down. I couldn’t move my arms, legs, nothing. My injury was a complete injury, which means no motor skills, never move nothing again. I went to therapy, just started working out and now I’m walking. I can drive, play games, and I’m just doing the therapy and walking on a cane. They said I’d never move my arms and legs again. 

TCR: When you hear about these other shootings, does that bring you back to your own experiences?

Deetreena: Sometimes I look at Ondelee and I get sad, I get angry and I get frustrated because of all the pain he has to endure and the fact that he has to learn how to do everything all over again. You learning how to walk, dealing with incontinence, he has to do it all over again. And I feel so guilty because I know that those parents that lost their kids would kill to be changing diapers off their kids again. I’m so blessed. I’m just so blessed that my son is still with me, but it’s so heartbreaking to see other parents go through that. When I hear about a kid getting shot and a kid getting killed it’s just so sad, and you just wonder why do these people not understand what they’re doing? … They’re breaking people’s hearts. How many more people have to die? I say no more Ondelee Perteets, no more Hadiya Pendletons, no more Trayvon Martins. Just stop.  

TCR: Initially, Ondelee was diagnosed quadriplegic. When did you start having hope that he’d be able to recover some movement?

D: At first I was just like, ‘Give it up; He’s never going to move his arms and legs. He’s going to spend his life in a wheelchair.’ I started to believe that. But then I was like, ‘You don’t know my god.’ My sister was saying ‘no, that’s not true, just move your finger. Tell auntie to come here, please tell auntie to come here.’ My nieces would say ‘Ondelee, move your arms! You can do it!’ Everybody pitched in, wouldn’t let him stay sad, tried to keep him happy and motivated. 

I’m not on him as much as I used to be. But I was like a drill sergeant, saying ‘We’re gonna do this.’ And we have. We’ve made outstanding accomplishments. I think that he is an inspiration to a lot of people. 

TCR: Tell us about the accomplishments.

D: He wasn’t able to drive at first, now he drives a car better than I do. He was diagnosed quadriplegic; that means moving nothing. He can stand up, he can do squats, he can walk on a cane. 

TCR: How’d you figure out how to play video games?

O: I was at my sister’s house with my nephew. He’s a game head. He was like ‘Ondelee, you can play basketball with one hand.’ I almost dropped [the controller] and then I kind of caught it with my mouth so that gave me an idea. And then I learned how to play. 

TCR: How long did that take?

O: Maybe a year. Driving about a year and a half. The next thing I want to try this summer is swimming. Before I really thought about swimming I had to get a lot of stuff under control before I can get in the water. Because I didn’t know how my body was going to react to being underwater because I wasn’t able to urinate on my own or move my bowels on my own. So now we have the catheter out. 

D: We don’t have the wet beds anymore either. I would have to change that bed every day. We’d have to put him on diapers. We barely even use them anymore. 

TCR: Why are you so open about this?

D: Cause we want people to know. I remember after he got shot, we were traveling on the buses and people don’t understand that when people are paralyzed and they have catheters they smell. He had a bag and people were on the bus like ‘Ew, what is that smell?’, and I felt the need to get up and say ‘Let me tell you, this is what gun violence looks like! This is what his body is going through!’ I felt bad for my son. People need to understand that when you shoot somebody you don’t know what kind of damage you’re going to do. I think it’s horrible the things he’s had to go through. I wouldn’t want to go through it. I don’t even think I could’ve made it through.

TCR: What would you say to other young men who are at risk of either being shot or of pulling the trigger themselves? 

O: I’d just tell them, you know, before you do anything, think first. You’ve got to always think before you do anything. Because you could end up like me in a wheelchair. Or you could end up like the person who shot me, in jail for 20 years. Or even dead. It’s not worth it.

TCR: Robert Sansberry, the young man who shot you, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. What if you were to see him when he got out? Would you have anything to say to him?

O: I’d ask him ‘why’d you shoot me?’ 

D: It’s not like we hate him. But it’s not like we’ve got a lot of love for him either. We did forgive him. But I feel like just because I forgave him doesn’t mean I’m not still angry. It was so senseless. 

This is part of an occasional series on youth violence. Read the introduction to series, the second installment about a family’s struggle with the impacts of violence, the third installment about the work of two community groups, the fourth installment about a grassroots organization that pairs young musicians with professional producers, and the This piece was supported by grants from the Open Society Foundations and the California Endowment National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Funding for previous installments of the Too Young to Die series was provided by The Chicago Community Trust via the Community Media Workshop, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation.

James Reddick

is a former intern at The Chicago Reporter.