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Facing Pandemic-Sized Giants

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Courtesy Donnell Washington
/
Donnell Washington
Donnell Washington survived a brain injury, COVID-19, and was on the scene when shots were fired at a mass shooting on Beatties Ford Road last June.

Before Donnell Washington walks through his front door, he sometimes lingers before stepping inside.

"I mean, there are still moments like when I unlock the door when I'm like, 'Oh, man, am I going to pass out?'" Washington said. "I think it’s just going through that trauma, because a trauma happened right there."

"That trauma" occurred after a seemingly normal day in December. He had gone to work; he’s a senior library assistant. He drove home. He sat in his car listening to music, decompressing before going inside. Then, he walked up to the front door of his house, where he lives with his cousin.

That’s the last thing he remembers of that day.

"I was coming in the front door, he was in the living room," Washington said. "So, of course, with our alarm system, it lets you know when any door opens. So, just me opening the door and not stepping in but falling back — yeah, he heard everything."

His cousin found him on the ground and quickly called 911. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital. When he came to, four or five days had passed. Washington had been in a coma.

"And that's when the doctors were just like, 'You had two brain bleeds,'" he said. "'And we also, you know, ran tests and you have COVID.'"

Washington had no idea he had COVID-19. About two weeks earlier, he says, he had tested negative for the virus.

He spent the next four weeks in the ICU.

"My family, they couldn't actually come up and see me," he said. "Like, they did come to the hospital, but they couldn't come up and actually sit with me."

When he was well enough, he talked with his family and friends on the phone. They would sometimes post those conversations on Facebook to let people know how he was doing. But it wasn’t always easy to talk while he recovered. Sometimes his family would ask him questions and it was hard for him to respond because he was so tired.

Christmas came and went. Then New Year's. Washington says during that time, he thought a lot about what it must be like for the elderly who are isolated in facilities during the pandemic.

"That period of being alone, that was a huge adjustment," he said. "Like, that was a lot."

What kept him going was the desire to be independent again, to go back to work, and to figure out what was next.

"I knew that I had to get back to things being normal because there are things that are incomplete that I haven't accomplished," he said. "At any moment, you may not be here. And so really, that's why I say I like to live in the moment. You only get one opportunity."

While he was in the hospital, his bills kept coming. His family set up a GoFundMe account that has raised $6,700 so far to help offset his medical expenses.

"With me being in the hospital for that many weeks and using up all my vacation and sick leave, it somewhat has affected my pay," he said. "But I'm getting back to that point ... but bills are still coming. But I'm not going to give up."

And as hard as things have been — the brain injury, the COVID-19 diagnosis, being away from friends and family — Washington says he feels blessed. For one, his cousin was home that day when he passed out. Had he not been there to call 911, who knows what would have happened.

And he wonders what recovering from a brain injury would have been like, if the world was “normal” and moving at a faster pace. Society, like Washington, has had to adjust to the pandemic — to shift expectations and how it operates.

In January, after four weeks in the ICU and two weeks in rehab, he was well enough to leave the hospital.

This was not the first time Washington came face-to-face with how fragile life can be. In June 2020, he was on Beatties Ford Road in west Charlotte during a weekend-long block party celebrating the Juneneeth holiday. What began as a peaceful gathering ended in violence.

I first interviewed Donnell about a week after the incident. He was there with friends when shots rang out. We met on Beatties Ford Road, and he was still coming to terms with what he saw that day and the fear he felt.

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Sarah Delia/WFAE

He described it as a "war zone." Four people ended up loosing their lives. Police still have not made arrests in the case.

He processed the trauma of the shooting by talking to friends and family — something he’s trying to do now when he talks about his brain injury.

"Just talking with family and friends about it has really helped me to not hide how I’m feeling," he said. "There are some mornings where I wake up with a major headache and I think it’s all because of this brain injury. Expressing how I'm feeling in the moment has really helped me."

And that support system will be even more important going forward. There are still a lot of questions around what caused the brain bleeds in the first place and what impact COVID-19 had on his body.

To stop his brain from swelling, a part of his skull was removed, so he’ll need another surgery to put that piece back into place. As he talked, he removed a hat he'd been wearing and rubbed his hand over the left side of his head.

"They had to let the swelling go down and they wanted to make sure I could go back to normal, everyday life — not under their care," he said.

Just scratching his head is a reminder that a piece isn't there.

Washington doesn’t wear a hat as much these days. That missing piece of his skull is part of his story, he said. He doesn’t want to hide it.

He says he doesn’t want to forget what happened. He’s not quite sure if he ever really could, but he does want to put it in the past.

"I don't know how close I was to death, but I'm pretty sure it was very serious," he said. "So, one of the things I've taken away from it is to live in the moment. But also, the things that you want to accomplish and do, you need to go ahead and seek that."

For Washington, that means exploring going back to school. He found a graduate program he’s interested in that would combine his passion for library sciences with social work.

Coming out on the other side of 2020 has taught him many lessons, he says, but the big one is that there’s a reason he’s still on this planet.

And he doesn’t want to waste any time getting to that purpose.

Each of us will face multiple giants before we leave this place, he reflected. For Washington, resiliency is about facing those giants head on — no matter what shape or form they may take.

Still Here's theme music was composed and produced by Patrick Bowden and Patrick Lee.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.